Stephen and Fern Schwartz (married) are Merrill Lynch reps in Pittsburgh. Stephen, a former dentist, joined his wife's practice three years ago, and has helped their team create a paperless storage and work-flow system. Both have spoken at conferences on practical uses of technology.
RR: What does it mean to have a computerized office?
Fern: We don't have any paper files. Everything from new-account forms to presentations to client letters are electronic.
Stephen: I don't think anyone can say they're completely computerized. Our system is centered around a computer network, and that's where all information is stored and shared. Everyone has access to it, so there's no putting a client on hold, asking an assistant to pull a file, and then waiting. Anyone at any desk can access any document simultaneously.
RR: How did these changes come about?
Fern: In August 1998, I was at a seminar with a laptop and had to call Stephen to ask how to turn it on. That gives you an idea of where I was coming from. Before that, all I used was a pen and legal pad.
Stephen: Before I started working with Fern, she used to come home and tell me about how frustrating some aspects of her practice were. So when we came together, my main task was to analyze what they were doing and what the solutions might be.
Fern: Actually, when we started with ACT!, we shut down the office for a few hours and we all went to a class. When we came back, we were all on the same level. From that meeting forward, we all worked together. Later that day, Stephen came into my office, took my planner, input all the information into ACT!'s calendar, and then refused to return the planner to me. Sink or swim.
Stephen: We were literally in her office, and I had it in one hand, while she had it in the other. We struggled over it until I finally had to throw it in the trash.
Fern: For 15 years, I lived by that planner. I remember the one time I forgot it. I panicked. It was found at Merrill Lynch in Princeton, N.J., and they had to overnight it to me. I was dead in the water without it.
RR: What kind of impact did becoming automated have on your staff?
Fern: It made their lives significantly easier, because when everything was put together with very specific methods of relating information, they knew exactly how things would work. No longer were stacks of paper left on desk chairs or sticky notes on computers. Depending on the importance and timeliness of the information, there were three or four ways they could receive it. So when they came in every day, they knew where to look and what to do.
RR: How did you decide what needed to be changed?
Fern: We were doing tasks every day, but they were being recreated every time. So we wanted to find out what could be standardized. For example, anytime a letter is sent out once, and a similar letter is sent again, it needs to be templated.
RR: What about the time and cost in going paperless?
Stephen: If you're coming from a zero technology standpoint, you'll probably have to spend $10,000. That's for a server, several computers, software, the cost of a technician to set it all up, etc.
RR: What third-party software programs do you use?
Stephen: We use Microsoft Office, ACT! for our contact management system, and because we're in a network within the office, we use a few programs that allow us to communicate with each other and share information. One is called ePop (www.wiredred.com) and the other Pink Notes (www.pinknotesplus.com).
RR: What advice can you give to other brokers?
Fern: I think the first thing they have to realize is that they are not the person to make these [technology] changes. I would not be this far ahead if it hadn't been for Steve. We're supposed to be helping clients, not deciding what software to buy. Every adviser needs to find someone on their team who's good with technology. Send them to courses, or if you're hiring someone, make sure you have an accurate job description when you interview.
Stephen: You can hire a technician to set up the system for you, but you need somebody who knows how to make changes and address problems.
I would sit down and ask, “What frustrates me most about my workload every day?” Once I looked at that list, I'd ask, “Is there something in the world of technology that could solve some of these problems?” If there are, then I would investigate those possibilities to see how life could be easier.