A consensus is growing in the planning industry that customer relationship management software is essential to running a successful practice. Most financial advisors, though, have checked out industry-specific products, such as Redtail, Junxure, Advisors Assistant and Ebix, which scored well in FP's annual Tech Survey. There are a host of general-purpose cloud providers as well, such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Salesforce. Some lesser-known products are often overlooked. One of them is Grendel Online.
As with a growing number of applications for advisors, Grendel Online is cloud-based. There is no software to install. You simply sign up, receive a user name and password, and access the software through a web browser. Grendel Online focuses on three goals, says company rep Aaron Guidotti: easing an advisor's workload, protecting the advisor and increasing revenue.
After logging in, you can access the home page, calendars, companies, people and products, view a list of alerts and access integrations (Alliance of Cambridge Advisors, Albridge, Fox Financial Planning Network, Laser App, MoneyGuidePro and more). You can also create notes, a task, an event or manage a project. In addition, you can address the rebalancing module and filing room, and the reports section from the navigation pane.
On the home screen you'll find a subsection called Workflows. It displays items due that day and icons that offer more information about the entry. The first icon identifies the item, such as a task or calendar item. The next column indicates whether the workflow is waiting on an outside source. The column after indicates whether the item is visible in the client portal, and the fourth column indicates whether you are responsible for the item or just monitoring it. Besides Today, the section lists tasks due After Today.
My version initially displayed 14 days of activity, but the default can be altered in the preferences settings. There is also a journal listing all workflow items at your firm. Again, my default was 14 days, but it can be changed to as many as 360 days. Clicking on any item on the middle or left of the screen, with the exception of the summary section, takes you to the details of that item.
Also on the home screen you'll find Immediate Opportunities. These include unmanaged assets (short term); assets in the system that you could be managing, but are not; outstanding proposals; a task for a client, such as rolling over an IRA; and client income, such as an expected bonus. In addition, you can track advisory fees that are current, due within 30 days or overdue, as well as the number of current prospects in the pipeline.
Below that section you can find a place to establish a routine for keeping in contact with clients. For each client or prospect, a user can set an interval. When a person is due for a contact, the name appears, giving the advisor an immediate prompt to contact the individual. Double click on the name and the person's contact screen appears.
Navigating to find people is fairly straightforward. Select People from the navigate button, and type in a first name or last name to search for an entry. An asterisk before a contact denotes that the person is deceased. The asterisk allows you to maintain deceased client records in the system, but helps ensure, for example, that you don't send them a message when you perform a mail merge.
In this section you can also set up groups. They can be static (the same people each time), or they can be dynamic (based upon the search criteria.) Dynamic groups can be helpful in many situations, such as when you want to create a mail merge for clients with assets above a certain level or when mailing a notice to clients who turned 701/2 this year. You can also organize people by prospects and clients, or by asset management clients and comprehensive financial planning clients.
The place for client records allows users to list each contact's demographics, the client's workflow for the next 30 days, a journal of work during the last 180 days, relationships, a picture and custom fields. You can click the household basics button to get further information about the household members. You can toggle from the basic view to the wealth management view. Here you can see a summary of the client (including net worth, AUM, outstanding proposals), as well as immediate opportunities. Clicking on a list of accounts allows you to drill down and see basics (including account type and tax status), positions, asset allocation, inflows, outflows, account beneficiaries and any documents that have been filed related to this account.
The wealth section includes the ability to manage aggregation feeds, the blotter, estate entities, and estate documents and goals, and create reports. The summary of accounts button contains three useful views: position overlap summary, insurance summary and closed accounts.
The section listing companies operates in a fashion similar to that of the people section. There is one big difference: It allows users to track employee benefits plans. This can show details on health insurance plans and deferred compensation. When you click the benefits view button, you see a summary list of benefit plans, along with a plan type and a summary of eligible employees.
Other major areas of the application include My Business, for tracking information about your own enterprise, and Products. The latter is not a common feature in all applications of this type. You can view a summary description of the product, including name, CUSIP number, approval status, ticker and website.
Below that is a list of comparable products. This area also allows the user to read a journal of any due diligence performed on the product and a list of households at your firm that are invested in the product. You can enter a note or file a document related to the product in the online filing system if purchased separately.
The Grendel calendar appears to be flexible. You can access your own personal calendar, as well as ones for groups to which you belong. Adding events for yourself or a team member is intuitive and flexible. There is also a button that allows you to sync your calendar with your Google calendar.
PRICING AND EXTRAS
Although the core Grendel Online system is inexpensive, a full Grendel Online suite, similar to the one I tested, will cost you substantially more, because many of the optional modules require an extra charge.
The core module costs just $50 a month. This pricing allows an advisory firm to have up to 15 staff members on a single account. The pricing and terms clearly are responding to industry leader Redtail's $65 a month pricing for up to 15 users on a single database.
For an additional $50 each month, you can add a Grendel Paperless Office module with up to 12 gigabytes of storage included. A client portal is available for $50 a month. Account aggregation costs $125 a month. Mobile access is $10 each month. As of this month, a Portfolio Rebalancer module was expected to be available for $100 a month.
In short, you can buy a capable customer management application for as little as $50 a month. But if you want all the bells and whistles, you are looking at spending $385 every month.
TO GRENDEL OR NOT TO GRENDEL?
Does Grendel Online meet the company's goals? I'd answer with a qualified yes.
The product can make an advisor's work life easier, but it may take some time depending on the user. Learning the basics is not difficult, but since the layout and navigation system is unique to Grendel, it might take some advisors time to get used to it. Overall, I found the system speedy and responsive.
Grendel Online lets users create an array of custom fields, but one could argue that the program is not easily customized. You can't move around the elements on the various screens, so if you want the summary view in a different place on your screen, you are out of luck.
The elements themselves are static, as well. You can't, for example, move the Journal off the Home page and substitute the Calendar for it instead.
Creating a simple workflow is easy. You select Workflows and Notes from the main navigation bar, and then select Manage Projects. This allows you to access an existing workflow or create a new one easily. The only downside is that you cannot create complex workflows, only simple, chronological ones.
If used correctly, Grendel Online can protect the advisor by documenting and storing all relevant data. The same, of course, can be said of any customer or document management software combination.
Perhaps the strongest argument favoring Grendel Online is that it might help firms boost revenues. Many advisors excel in building investment portfolios and creating financial plans, but they fail to grab revenue opportunities.
Advisors using Grendel Online are constantly reminded of such opportunities, to keep in touch with clients, and to build other aspects of the job. Grendel's constant reminders should drive revenue growth in many cases.
THE LIMITS OF SIMPLICITY
Grendel Online is not comprehensive compared with other systems we've sampled. It lacks sophistication. The online filing system is adequate but has limitations. The client portal lacks power.
The Rebalancer, soon to be released, is driven by Advisor Software. It's solid, proven technology used by some major custodians, but at present it is not tax sensitive or location sensitive, so users may find it has its limits.
The Grendel version will only let a user rebalance one household at a time, one custodian at a time. If advisors have two-custodian accounts, they will have to rebalance each one separately.
Because Grendel Online is simple, some advisors may be tempted to buy added features they will never use. The program provides a good mix of functionality and usability at a rock bottom price. It offers a push to generate revenue in ways that its competitors do not. The additional modules are competitively priced. There's also a benefit to paying for a group of modules that work well together.
The ideal Grendel Online customer is likely to be in a growing firm seeking a system that is not too complex and that offers an array of options. If that sounds like your firm, then Grendel Online is worththy of your consideration.
Joel Bruckenstein is a Financial Planning editor-at-large and co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today newsletter and conference series. He's also president ofGlobal Financial Advisors in Miramar, Fla. For more information, visit JoelBruckenstein.com.