Rick Adkins has been in the financial advice business for 32 years.
That is long enough to make every mistake in the book, he jokes.
In the early 1980s, professional financial planning was in its infancy, and simple computer spreadsheets were de rigueur. Mr. Adkins couldn't import data about his clients' assets that were managed by other firms, so he would purchase a small number of shares of stocks that his clients held away for his own retirement account, just to obtain correct pricing data.
“I kind of just look back at that and shake my head,” he said.
In the intervening three decades, planning has become mainstream, enabled in part by the increased sophistication of technology options available to its practitioners.
Along the way, Mr. Adkins and his five-person Little Rock, Ark.-based advisory firm have been on the leading edge of technology to improve client service.
In the process they have encountered failures, misjudgments and delays. At different times, they have been forced to do work-arounds on social media, planning technology and customer relationship management software.
WON "INNOVATOR' AWARD
“You have to be willing to fail,” Mr. Adkins said. “It's the investment you make in finding the right solution.”
Mr. Adkins' firm, the Arkansas Financial Group Inc., ranked among the best of 317 firms examined in the 2013 InvestmentNews Adviser Technology Study. For that, InvestmentNews recognized the firm with a Best Practices “innovator” award last year.
The firm's first forays into using planning and CRM software, in the 1990s, didn't succeed, according to Mr. Adkins.
Early financial software generated “massive volumes of paper” that confused and frustrated clients.
And the firm had set up the CRM to alert staff members to far too many “pending” tasks, exhausting them.
So Mr. Adkins waited until about a decade ago, around 2005, to roll out planning software. And he has kept the CRM alerts to a minimum.
That kind of trial-and-error experimentation extends to other areas of the business' tech development. Online, for instance, the firm had to discover where its clients are and how to communicate with them.
At first, Mr. Adkins said that he “pooh-poohed” Facebook.
But the firm followed its clients to where they congregated online — Facebook much more so than other social-media websites such as LinkedIn.
“You get a sense of what's important to the client” on Facebook, Mr. Adkins said.
“Understanding the client is important because there will be events of someone being sick, someone graduating, someone taking a trip — just the life stuff that goes on that you don't generally pick up in a questionnaire,” he said.
“The saddest thing is when I see clients either die or become physically incapable of doing the things they came to us initially and said, "This is what I'd like to do with my life,”" Mr. Adkins said. “My role is to facilitate life working in the way they'd hoped that it does.”
In implementing technology, firms have to strike a balance between solving issues for individual clients, which Mr. Adkins calls customization, and being efficient enough to serve many of them, which he calls systematization.
“How you blend customization with systematization is the challenge most financial planning firms face, because on one hand each client has a set of problems and hopes and dreams, but you have to be able to apply your processes in a consistent manner or you won't get scale,” he said.
“You'll be a craft. You won't ever be a business,” Mr. Adkins said.
One of the main challenges the firm faces is making the most of the technology it already has, he said.
“What we're able to do today exceeds my wildest imagination from 1982,” Mr. Adkins said.