Technology Update

Salesforce.com is more than a CRM app

Sep 11, 2011 @ 12:01 am

By Davis D. Janowski

Salesforce.com has become a serious competitor in the customer relationship management market for financial advisers.

In our recent technology survey of more than 1,000 advisers, 7.5% of the respondents indicated that they are already users of the application.

Although that doesn't seem like an overwhelming share, it does make Salesforce the third-most-popular product in use among respondents to the InvestmentNews survey, behind Junxure from CRM Software Inc. (21.2%) and Redtail Technology (18.1%).

Based on the tech initiatives at Schwab Advisor Services and TD Ameritrade Institutional, both of which include Salesforce to varying degrees as integration partners, that market share should grow even more.

It makes this an opportune time to explore not only the latest announcements from Schwab and TD — both briefed me on Salesforce-related news last week — but also to lay out how Salesforce could grow to be the hub of an advisory ecosystem, one full of additional integrated applications.

This is likely to be the case not only among many registered investment advisory firms but also at independent broker-dealers.

When thinking about Salesforce, advisers shouldn't view it as stand-alone, dedicated CRM software.

“Think of Salesforce as a platform itself,” said Mary Ferguson, president of Concenter Services LLC, a tech consulting firm. “Think of it more like an iPhone, where you go out and buy the phone but then add other apps to it in order to make it much more useful.”

Ms. Ferguson's firm, which is a Salesforce.com partner, owns XLR8, a customizable CRM system designed for advisers and wealth managers that is available on the Salesforce.com platform.

Smaller advisory firms satisfied with the CRM that they are using and that don't plan to grow a lot in terms of staff or complexity of services might not need Salesforce. It is more suited to firms that expect to grow and need technology that is both outsourced and can scale.

Although it seems like an oversimplification, what the user sees on the screen — the front-end user interface, as it is called — has been completely designed, organized and customized by Schwab and TD (or others such as XLR8 and another called AppCrown).

That is just one small part of what makes Salesforce so powerful — having the flexibility to tune the front end to look as logical or aesthetically pleasing as you want, yet leave all the backend complexity and ability to make the CRM as wide or deep as you need.

Beyond the interface, things become dramatically more complex.

“We have built a custom [Salesforce-based] application with TD work flows built in, along with seamless integration to Veo and more than 20 third-party vendors,” said Jon Patullo, director of technology product management at TD Ameritrade Institutional.

Veo is TD's web-based adviser platform.

TD has worked with Salesforce and AppCrown LLC over the past 10 months to build the system and has nine advisory firms in a pilot program using their own data, Mr. Patullo said.

TD is looking to roll it out in the next month.

As a corporate user of Salesforce itself, TD was able to negotiate a significant discount for the version it will in turn be reselling to advisers, which would be about 40% off Salesforce's general pricing of $65 per user per month for TD's customized Force.com version and $125 per user per month for the full CRM Sales Cloud (the latter version includes more pre-built sales-focused features, including case file management, marketing campaigns and prospecting tools), Mr. Patullo said. Pricing has not been finalized though.

Salesforce's work flows and connectivity to TD's Veo account management illustrate the flexibility it has as a development platform. It also goes a long way to explaining its appeal both to TD and Schwab.

And again, thanks to the flexibility of its web services, it is a simple process to provide neophyte advisers with a choice of front ends.

“Somebody that has not used Salesforce would come in and have a choice of three different default views based on their level of CRM expertise,” Mr. Patullo said.

It also has 50 work flow processes that firms can begin using and customizing out of the box, including, for example, a new account opening work flow.

Schwab Advisor Services spoke with me about the progress that it has made on the Salesforce front.

Schwab recently wrapped up a three-week beta test of its customized iteration of Salesforce, said Brian Shenson, managing director of adviser services.

That test involved more than a dozen advisory firms working in a test environment of Schwab's custody system, using sample data, he said.

This is leading up to a pilot Schwab will begin in September — that would be a pilot on both solutions, including the turnkey [OpenView Integrated Office] and the modular [OpenView Gateway], said Mr. Shenson, adding that Schwab will be able to provide production data with the pilot.

United Capital Financial Partners Inc. is a firm that has grown to 30 offices around the country, with $5.2 billion in assets under management and $16 billion in assets under advisement. The advisory firm continues to rely on Salesforce as its core application.

Gary Roth, the firm's chief operating officer, and I discussed Honest Conversations Toolkit, his firm's example of an ecosystem application, which combines prospecting, client outreach and exploration tools and shares data with Salesforce.

The tool kit is a proprietary method of drawing clients into a conversation that is focused on their needs.

It comes with a deck of 15 cards. Each card represents various areas of a client's financial life. During the 20-minute process, the client thinks about his or her priorities and arranges the cards accordingly.

'EXTREMELY POWERFUL'

The Conversations application was built as an online tool that can be used either by the client or in person with an adviser guiding the conversation. Built using the Google Apps development environment, Honest Conversations communicates through Salesforce's application programming interface.

Although it remains proprietary to the firm, Mr. Roth hasn't ruled out adding it to the Salesforce App Exchange.

“With Salesforce, if you are a firm like ours with a centralized infrastructure and a dedicated technology person that can customize it, it is going to be extremely powerful. The possibilities of what can be developed for it are just about unlimited, from what we have observed,” Mr. Roth said.

Email Davis Janowski at djanowski@investmentnews.com

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