IFAs must go on the net or go under

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The Independent Online
LAUNCHING a fully-interactive internet site is an expensive business. If you want round-the-clock access, high levels of security, interactive forms, calculators and e-commerce, then you have to be prepared to invest serious money.

The large banks, insurance and investment companies have this money. Independent financial advisers, by and large, do not. Most are small firms without full-time computer staff, let alone a web expert in the back office. Yet, if IFAs are to survive, some form of net presence is probably essential.

Selling insurance and, to a lesser extent, investments and mortgages over the telephone has been an enormous success, as companies such as Direct Line and Virgin prove. More traditional companies, including Norwich Union and Scottish Widows now sell policies over the phone too. For these companies, direct selling on the net is simply the next step.

For the independent financial adviser, the prognosis is not good. They risk being squeezed on both price and convenience by the insurers' direct operations. Even an IFA's long-standing customers might be tempted to buy direct from an insurance or investment company if it is a choice between visiting a financial adviser, usually in office hours, or spending a few minutes on a web site.

Interactive Investor (iii), the huge personal finance site, offers IFAs a good alternative to building their own sites. The Interactive IFA site will offer a quick and easy way to build a basic, four-page web site and keep it up-to-date.

Interactive investor has around 85,000 private investors who are regular users, as well as providing financial information, over the net, to its IFA clients.

One of the most popular features on the Interactive Investor site is the "Find an IFA" service. According to Tim Huckle, who is responsible for Interactive IFA, 40 per cent of iii's private users either retain an IFA or are considering it.

Interactive IFA is a low cost step onto the net. For investors, the real advantage lies in grouping a large number of advisers together in one place. It is far easier to find an IFA and contact it electronically via the iii site than trawl the web for a suitable adviser using a search engine. The net also opens up opportunities for specialist IFAs to reach a wider audience.

The iii search facility works by location and by specialism, so someone looking for an IFA that specialises in school fee planning, pensions, or the self-employed, could look nationally and keep in touch with the adviser mainly by phone or through the net.

Mr Huckle expects 500 of the 3,800 IFAs registered with iii to sign up for the web service within six months. He hopes the web will attract new customers to IFAs, but it should also make it easier for IFAs and clients to keep in touch.

He plans developments including a facility for clients to check their portfolios on-line, around the clock. IFAs will also be able to use e- mail to remind clients of important deadlines, such as those for tax returns or for making pension contributions.

Contacts: Interactive Investor, www.iii.co.uk; Interactive IFA, www.ifa.co.uk