Some technology firms serving the financial planning community get a lot of media attention. Laser App Software is not one of them. Sexy new products are newsworthy, but Laser App has not produced many of those in recent years. The firm's software does just one thing, but it does it extremely well: It helps financial service professionals fill out forms and process them. Now it has introduced Laser App Anywhere, its next-generation product.
Laser App Software pioneered form-filling technology for financial services in 1995. Since then, it has grown to be an industry leader in the field. The company's software is used by six clearing firms, about 350 product carriers and about 350 broker-dealers. The company works with about 70 integration partners, providers of CRM software, financial planning software, portfolio management software, account opening software, commission compliance software, document imaging software, e-signature technology, portfolio management software and tax software.
The Laser App library includes about 29,000 forms. The firm's software is installed in roughly 110,000 locations. In the last year, more than 10 million forms were downloaded by users, and it's estimated that more than 20million forms were filled out using Laser App software.
THE NEW PRODUCT
Laser App Anywhere is the firm's new cloud-based product. It was introduced at the company's annual broker-dealer conference in August in San Diego, which attracted more than 300 advisors, broker-dealer and custodian personnel and technology vendors.
When the firm asked advisors what they wanted, they said "the cloud," according to Robert Powell, Laser App Software's vice president of sales and marketing. Some of these advisors probably didn't know exactly what the cloud is, but they knew what the concept meant to them: freedom to access any form, from anywhere, at any time.
Broker-dealers undoubtedly had their own wish list. They wanted something that would further reduce not-in-good-order paperwork, while meeting institutional-grade compliance and security standards. The software also needed to be easy to set up and use.
Although it was not explicitly stated, Laser App Software no doubt had a wish list of its own. It needed a 21st century edition of its legacy desktop-based product. Addressing an audience primarily made up of broker-dealer employees, Ed Beggs, the CEO and founder of Laser App Software, said, "If you don't provide good technology, your customers will leave you." He went on to state that 22% of new advisors are younger than 40, and 5% are younger than 30. "Young people grew up with technology," he said. "They expect technology, and they demand it of their providers."
This new cloud-based system was designed from the ground up with four major goals: to make it accessible, to make it simple, to make it reliable and to make it powerful. Laser App Anywhere is still in beta, so I have not been able to test it extensively yet, but based upon what I've seen so far, it appears to meet or exceed the needs of its constituencies, and it appears to meet all of its objectives.
Laser App Anywhere can be launched through two channels: CRM software systems and the account-opening solutions offered by broker-dealers and custodians. So, if an advisor has entered a prospect's information into the CRM system and the prospect decides to become a client, the advisor can launch Laser App Anywhere, select the appropriate forms and have those forms pre-populated with data contained within the CRM system, provided the CRM vendor is integrated with Laser App. If a broker-dealer or custodian has a workflow that originates at an account opening solution, Laser App Anywhere would pull information from that application and pre-populate the forms.
The accessibility applies anywhere, on any device. Laser App Anywhere should be accessible from smartphones, tablets and PCs running major operating systems like Windows, Mac OS X, iOS and Android. Laser App says the application is compatible with all major web browsers. No installation is required, nor is PDF software.
EASE OF USE
Laser App Anywhere is simple to use. Based on a demo and my brief hands-on experience with the product, any advisor should be able to master the application in minutes.
Advisors can locate the form they need using one of three methods. The first is search. From a drop-down list, they would select, for example, the form type. They would next select the form vendor. They would then view a filtered list of forms that meet their criteria. The second method is to select from a published group, a list of forms that an administrator at the broker-dealer or custodian creates for the user. The third method is to choose from a personal form group, a list that a user has created for his or her own use. The system can store multiple published groups and personal groups, so multiple groups can be created, each related to a specific workflow.
On the enterprise side, the software was designed so that businesspeople could run it without the need for software developers. Administrators need to do some configuration, but no programming knowledge is necessary, and once the system is set up, administrative tasks will be limited primarily to adding new users to the system and credentialing them.
Reliability should be excellent. The software is hosted on dedicated servers. Nothing is shared. There are redundant systems in place, and everything runs on dedicated hardware. The system is compliant with the Payment Card Industry Security Standards, the system used to process, store and transmit credit card information. This security is expensive, but it is reliable and secure.
The solution is powerful. It is hosted by Rackspace, a leading provider in the industry. All hardware is professionally managed in bunkers on dedicated servers. The software is also powerful in the sense that it can keep data alive. Since the form is created digitally in a software-as-a-service environment, the forms can interact with other integrated systems and move data to them.
For example, it will be possible to create forms within Laser App Anywhere and route them securely to the client for digital signature, then send an application to a custodian or B-D for processing, with a copy of the digitally signed form routed to a document imaging system. It was possible to perform the same feat previously, but this entailed more software, much coding and higher cost. Beggs predicts that straight-through routing and processing will soon become commonplace as a result of Laser App Anywhere.
Laser App Anywhere offers large B-Ds and custodians valuable reporting features. For example, they will be able to see charts with a breakdown of the forms advisors are using. They will receive information on what web browsers, operating systems and devices their advisors are using to access Laser App Anywhere, as well as what CRM reps are using to access the system.
This information will allow firms to analyze what types of advisors are using a certain device or a certain CRM system. These institutions will then be able to provide support to their advisors and develop workflows and services tailored specifically to their needs.
Overall, Laser App Anywhere looks very impressive, although there are a few tweaks I'd like to see. One is the addition of an icon or app so that advisors using a tablet or smartphone can launch Laser App Anywhere with a single tap or click, as opposed to typing a web address into a mobile browser. Another is a more dynamic, graphically rich set of reports; however, in fairness, the reports included in the demo are still a work in progress.
If Laser App Anywhere is as impressive as we think it is, does that mean the desktop server product is extinct? Not quite yet, although it will fade away over time. For now, advisors who use a desktop/server-based CRM system or those reluctant to have their forms software on the web will probably stick with the current version, although this group will likely shrink substantially over the next several years.
The other case for using the current system is advisors in transition from one broker-dealer or custodian to another. In such cases, an advisor would need to create perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of forms and process them as a batch. Laser App Anywhere does not currently have that sort of batch capabilities built in, due to the stress it would put on application-programming interfaces that were not built to handle that quantity of data. In the future, however, when these interfaces can handle the data flow, batch capabilities will probably be added to Laser App Anywhere.
REDTAIL & QUADRON PLANS
Laser App was not the only firm making announcements at its conference. Redtail Technology announced that it had completed a bi-directional integration between its cloud-based CRM software and Quadron Data Solutions' back-office account opening system.
According to Redtail's CEO, Brian McLaughlin, "This represents our first bi-directional data exchange with an account opening system. It also marks the first time we have incorporated third-party profitability data into our system." The CEO of Quadron Data Solutions, David Fetter, added: "With regulations like FINRA Rule 2090 (Know Your Customer), it is important to have a holistic view of client data."
McLaughlin also announced that Redtail would soon integrate with ShareFile, a service of Citrix that allows advisors to securely share, synchronize and store files.
The Laser App conference made it clear that form-filling software, an essential, but often overlooked, component in the advisor's workflow, is moving into the 21st century. The release of Laser App Anywhere is sure to spur further innovations on the part of Laser Apps' 70 partners, as well. That, in turn, should lead to further efficiency gains for broker-dealers, custodians, advisors and the clients they serve.
Joel Bruckenstein is a Financial Planning editor-at-large and co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today newsletter and conference series. He is also president of Global Financial Advisors in Miramar, Fla. For more information, visit JoelBruckenstein.com.