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4 rules for talking to tech vendors at conferences

There’s no shortage of technology vendors lining the exhibit halls at RIA industry conferences. This is a good thing — competition breeds innovation, drives down costs and improves offerings for RIAs. But without the right approach, advisors can come away from these events more confused about their firm’s tech needs than when they started.

Here are four rules for getting the most out of conversations. The goal is for the advisor to find tools to help them run their business the way they want it to be run — plus avoid information overload.

1. The tail does not wag the dog. Too often, tech vendors tell RIAs they simply cannot engage with clients in the way they want. Instead, they hear they must work differently. This is simply not true.

The twin goals of improving efficiency and facilitating client engagement should drive the firm’s tech choices. Fear of regulation and cybersecurity breaches should not. Certainly, RIAs should implement best practices and protocols for regulatory compliance and security, but there are also multiple ways to achieve the desired end result. Today’s offerings were not available a few years ago, so it pays to investigate all options. The right platform can weave together a firm’s technology so advisors can work the way they want, with a flexible cybersecurity layer that rests atop the RIA’s operating environment, shielding the entire operating environment and interactions with the firm’s tech vendors.

InVest tech demo New York
Attendees of Financial Planning's InVest conference in New York receive a tech demonstration

An umbrella layer of cybersecurity means you only need to log in once to move between platform to platform within the firm’s operating environment. It eliminates the need for separate logins and passwords to access the CRM system, another for the portfolio management system and so on. When you enhance overall security between your firm and the vendor, you’ve developed a community participating in the umbrella of security.

When vendors resist discussions about the firm’s desired operating environment, advisors should talk to someone else.

2. If it feels like a conversation with your old employer’s IT department, move on. One of the main reasons advisors become independent RIAs is for the freedom to choose how they want to run their businesses and serve clients. This flexibility is not limited to investment product choices — it should extend to the firm’s tech setup, too.

IT departments of former employers may have stifled advisors’ attempts to work a certain way. But independent RIAs no longer have to conform to preexisting protocols. Instead they can construct a technology environment that suits how they want to work. For example, prior employers may have blocked an advisor’s ability to share files, work remotely or use personal devices, but the RIA can be set up to do all of these things and more, because a flexible cybersecurity umbrella layer can act as a shield for the way in which you want to operate.

The independent RIA channel allows for individual choices. It should not be an issue if one advisor wants to work on their personal tablet all the time — in the office and remotely — and another wants to use the firm’s PC. The RIA’s tech environment can be flexible enough to support all of this, and still implement best practices for cybersecurity compliance and meeting regulatory requirements.

3. No two firms use tech the same way. There are a handful of systems that nearly all RIAs have in place — a CRM, a portfolio management system and financial planning software, for example. But all firms do not use these things in the same way.

Some RIAs build their entire business around the CRM, using every tool to contact clients and organize workflow. Others use it as a giant Rolodex and not much else. The same goes for portfolio management software. Some advisors use it to the fullest because they believe it helps them engage with their clients. And advisory firms with a heavy emphasis on tax planning use financial planning software very differently than firms that focus on other areas.

When talking to vendors, advisors should be clear about how they work with clients to realistically assess whether a particular offering can support their operations. Otherwise, planners end up purchasing tech that does not work for their firm or that comes with expensive capabilities that they will not use.

4. Ask specific questions about the way you want to work. There are no stupid questions when it comes to evaluating new technology so advisors need to get granular in asking for details about how an application or service works.

Can this work with my personal devices, my PC and a virtual environment? How will all of these things be secured? Does everyone at the firm need to use firm-owned devices only or can access to firm applications from personal, non-managed devices be managed? Ask risk management questions too: if my device is lost, stolen, gets damaged or dies, can I still work and how will access to my data and clients be protected? It’s important to understand whether the vendor’s answers to these questions align with how the advisor wants to work. Vendors have work-arounds for real life scenarios, but they are sometimes limited and may not offer solutions that make sense for the RIA.

To sum up, know where you want to go. A stroll down the technology corridors of any industry conference is always a good idea. Firms are evolving and today’s RIA is not the same firm it was three years ago. But before talking to anyone, advisors must be clear on what they want to do with their firms or risk having technology vendors define this for them. Fruitful conversations happen when the advisor knows where the firm needs to go and can use this as the criteria to determine the right technology toolset to get there.

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