Systems' needs

When it comes to technology, the starting point for most firms which conduct discrete investment business will be to fix a modem to one of the office PCs and to link up to the on-line Videotex quotations service provided by the Stock Exchange. This clearing house, established by the major product providers, helps intermediaries to obtain information and quotations. Without this facility, providing best advice about price-competitive products is impossible.

As interactive communication increases, Videotex is showing its age. The Stock Exchange's Common Trading Platform provides a basis for importing information from a range of remote sources on markets, products, interest rates and mortgage rates. It is also possible to effect transactions in life and pensions products on-line, saving time and improving efficiency. While some product providers are already developing a new generation of simplified life insurance policies products with standardised proposal packages, which will be as price-competitive as those sold by the tied sales staff of the banc assurance combines.

A modem also provides an efficient means of communicating between firms: a fact which has prompted SIFA to establish a financial services referrals network within the profession, backed by commonly accepted standards and procedures.

Modems are cheap, in the region of £150, while the main on-line services are cheap or free. One industry commentator said at a recent conference: "A PC without a modem is like a car without wheels."

It is when the practitioner steps into the field of in-house software that complications begin, with heavy costs and continually changing standards.

Firms which undertake investment management may tackle the problem head on and invest in a heavyweight package which will up-date prices, produce reports and valuations and calculate tax liabilities. However, these types of facility are likely to become available on-line from out-sourcing organisations, eliminating the risk of investing in obsolete configurations.

For most firms, the best solution may be a simple Factfind, database and compliance system from which users can launch into the fast-expanding range of on-line services.

The financial services department is often more alert than most sections of the firm of the importance of orderly data retention and its use for marketing purposes.

If it is successful in triggering an awareness among legal fee earners of the need for a client database for the benefit of the firm, it will have performed an invaluable service.