One of the themes of February's Technology Tools for Today Conference was a lack of advisor efficiency. Balance Financial's new software for advisors is designed to alleviate this very problem. In many ways, it does, though a close look shows the product is still rough around the edges.
Balance Financial Professional Suite is a web-based software platform that "helps CPAs, bookkeepers and financial advisors better service and engage with their clients," according to Devin Miller, the company's chief executive. It provides a suite of tools, including account aggregation, a client portal, custom reporting, full-featured bill payment, "bank-level security" and mobile apps.
Balance Financial's software was released about three years ago; its management team consists of several seasoned technology professionals. Miller is no stranger to financial services, and a number of team members have worked at Microsoft.
Balance Financial provides a private-branded site that an advisor offers a client. Miller set me up with a test account that was already loaded with some data, and I started by examining the client side of the application. When I logged on, I was taken immediately to the Bills section, but I'm told that, in the version just released, users will be able to configure the landing page. The portals are: Reports, Files, Profile, Accounts, and Rules and Alerts. Each is represented by a tab at the top of the page.
The Bills section itself is subdivided into six parts: Urgent, All Bills, Payments, Payees, Payments Coming Due, plus Match and Reconcile. Each subsection has its own set of tabs.
In addition, there is an information bar/menu bar to the far left of the page. It is context sensitive, so the information on the bar and the order in which it is displayed can change depending upon the area of the program you use.
The Urgent area of the Bills section is well designed. At the top, there are drop-down filtering lists that allow the user to customize what is viewed - for instance, bills due that require client approval.
In spreadsheet format, the client sees the date due, payee, amount, account number, reason (for example, client approval required) and actions/details. When a client clicks on the actions/details button, a virtual check and register entry appear.
The client can pay the bill, clear it, edit it, add a payee note or add a bill note. If there are multiple payment options, the client can select the preferred payment type from a drop-down list.
On the same screen, the user can tab through other views, including payment history to the vendor in question, bill details, notes and a history of the transaction.
The Reports section is well designed, as well. On the page's left side, report views are organized by type. The user can view transaction reports, summary reports, comparisons, actual versus budget, and various "bills only" reports. Users can also filter information at the top of the page by account, category, date or merchant name. In addition, there is a report builder that allows the user to create customized reports in PDF format.
ECHOES OF MINT.COM, DROPBOX
Some of the expense reports, like the itemized one and the summary one, are similar to what clients can get from Mint.com. Most advisors would probably prefer that their clients get this information from the advisors' own privately branded products than from Mint.com.
Under Files, the storage and sharing area is functional, although it is not as convenient as, say, Dropbox. It does provide the ability to store files online and share them with others securely.
Within the Profile section, the contact subsection contains demographic information and a space to upload a photo. If others are authorized to use the account, their names, as well as the type of access (view only or full), are found under the appropriate tab. Any time an activity takes place in a user's account, it is recorded in the account activity log.
Accounts are divided into two sections: online financial accounts (that is, the accounts that are being monitored by the system) and funding accounts for bill paying. The former accounts include identifiers and current balance; the latter include routing number and status. There's also a button that makes it easy to change the primary funding account.
Advisors can create client-related rules, too. For example, you can always pay bills under a certain amount without a client review, or you can require that a client review all bills over a certain amount. You can assign rules to specific payees only.
Alerts can be generated when new bills are uploaded or whenever a payment over a specified amount is scheduled. If desired, alerts can be emailed as they are generated.
An iPhone app for clients allows them to pay bills, approve advisor or bookkeeper payments, upload receipts, view a calendar of scheduled payments, view recent payments and access contact information for their advisor or bookkeeper.
The advisor portal provides some additional worthwhile client service features. For example, the urgent page of the bills section for advisors is divided into two sections: one is for unapproved payments and the other is for bills that need attention.
In the former category, an advisor would need to contact a client for approval before payments can be processed. This might be done by simply asking a client to log on to the client portal, where the urgent matters will appear upon login. The landing page also contains information about software updates, as well as a button that allows the advisor to invite new clients to the system.
The Clients section lists clients by name, number, type and status. You can filter clients by active, pending, funding account pending, suspended or any combination of the above. You can also search by name.
The Professionals section allows users to add others within a firm as well as affiliated professionals, bookkeepers and others. They are listed in this section along with their certification and their date of joining. The next tab allows you to assign clients to a professional user.
The Advisor Profile section contains basic demographic data and a tab for branding (company name, title, personal bio, logo) that can be used in other parts of the application. The Products section lets users select modules and pay the subscription fee.
The Reports and Settings area lets you set global limits on a single payment or the total amount dispersed within a 30-day period, generate various global reports, and create and maintain organizational defaults for categories and budgets.
In addition, you can create a set of default folders for the Files and Folders section so you don't have to re-create them for every client account. There is a similar feature for budgeting categories so advisors can set up a default budget template and then apply it to multiple clients.
Another appealing feature is auto keyword customization. This allows advisors to customize the list of keywords that drive spending. The typical consumer app does not offer this. For example, if a user of a typical consumer app makes a purchase at McDonald's, it might automatically be categorized as a food purchase, and the user would not be able to change it.
With the Balance product, an advisor could choose to label the purchase as "fast food," "restaurant" or anything else. Subsequent McDonald's purchases would all be categorized automatically in a similar manner. Finally, the Activity section logs all user activity within the application.
NO HELP FOR YOU
For the most part, the Balance Financial site is intuitive, but if you're looking for help, forget it - help is virtually nonexistent. When you first sign up, there is a link to take a guided tour. If you initially pass on this opportunity and want to take the tour later, good luck at finding it. Balance Financial either has to make the site more intuitive, or it has to provide better documentation and training.
The Reports section is not as robust nor as graphically rich as Mint.com or other similar consumer websites. Miller says he is awaiting feedback from users before he increases the number of views and graphs here, but a considerable upgrade seems to be in order.
MORE GRAPHICS, INTEGRATION
Another drawback is that there is no filtering or sorting of the account activity log in the Profile section. It appears that you can view the entries only chronologically, with the most recent one listed first. As activity increases, this might become a time-consuming process.
I have some misgivings about the collection of servcies that are offered. The bill-paying portion of the app currently seems the most highly evolved, but I doubt that bill payment is the most appealing part of the app for most financial advisors. It seems to me that the private-labeled aggregation features would have the most appeal, and they still need some work, especially with regard to graphics.
My biggest single criticism of the program is the lack of integration partners. If Balance Financial had integration with popular CRM packages, financial planning packages and custodial back offices, its value would be much greater.
Fortunately, I expect all of these shortcomings can be addressed without much difficulty if there is sufficient advisor interest.
The base price is $19.95 a month for every professional license. There are, however, some additional fees. Professionals can offer account aggregation and spending reports to their clients for $3 a month per client. There's a fee of 99 cents for each bill uploaded to the system and 99 cents for each bill paid through the system. Other fees include $25 for overnight payments and $25 for insufficient funds.
Security features seem to be adequate. The application is hosted within an SAS 70 compliant data center. All data transmissions are 128-bit encrypted using a secure socket layer. All sensitive data, including account numbers, are encrypted.
Strong password protocols are strictly enforced. In addition, Balance Financial scans its infrastructure regularly for any potential vulnerabilities.
This private-branded account aggregation offering with the budgeting reports should appeal to advisors, but the jury is still out on whether Balance Financial can become a provider of choice.
If you're curious, the company is offering a free trial for advisors at balancefinancial.com/get_started.
Joel Bruckenstein, a Financial Planning editor-at-large, is 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.