Category: Custom Reporting


As a provider of technology solutions for financial services firms small and large nationwide, I frequently come in contact with investment firms of diverse dynamics and decision-making processes.  I am, of course, familiar with the process and discipline of getting

three separate quotes for goods and services, but even after decades of bidding on projects, it is still unclear to me what investment firms actually do with this information.

In some cases, it seems like the decision has already been made and prospects are just going through the motions to fulfill the expectation to follow a procedure and process established by their firm.  Gut decisions sometimes overrule common sense.

One of my clients actually adheres to this discipline for everything and, if the rumors are true, even gets three prices for paper clips.  In my own experience with them, they did, in fact, get three quotes for a single piece of computer equipment that cost about $75.  Considering current wage and consulting rates this arguably may not be a good use of time or money.  Perhaps it’s a more altruistic goal of keeping our economy competitive that drives their policy.

 

Opportunity                          

Recently, I was contacted by a firm looking for assistance with some Axys report modifications.  One of our competitors provided them with a quote for the work they needed.  The prospect felt that the price was too high and they solicited my opinion.  I never saw the quote from my competitor, but heard from the prospect that they wanted 3-4k up front and expected it would cost 7-8k.  In another conversation, I was told that there was also a local company bidding on the work.  That made sense to me – three bids.

I was provided with a detailed specification of what needed to be done and asked to provide them with a quote.  The firm was looking to make some modifications to the Axys report that generates Advent’s performance history data and stores it as Net of Fees (PRF) and Gross of Fees (PBF) data.  Though the requirements seemed complicated initially, it eventually became clear to me that the job simply required filtering of a couple REPLANG routines, and some minor additions.

I shared my impression with the prospect and ball-parked our bid at 3k (a 12 hour block of time) less than half of our known competitor’s bid.   I explained that the actual work was likely to take three to four hours, and rest of the time would be spent on testing, support and maintenance.  My expectation was that we would get the work done in a half day to a day at most and the remainder of our time could be used for any required maintenance or modification later in the year.

 

Follow-Up

After about a week, I called to follow up and found out that the firm was strongly considering having the work done by their local vendor, who told them it could be done for seven to ten days.  “Excuse me,” I said.  “Don’t you mean seven to ten hours?”

“No,” he replied.  He further explained that they really like using the local vendor and would probably use them for the job, which I fully understand.  I have, no doubt, benefited from this sentiment in Boston for years.  At that point in the call, I was thinking that it was more like seven to ten lines of code, but thankfully I didn’t start laughing.  I waited until the call ended.

 

No Risk, No Reward

In the end, your firm’s decision to select one bid over another is a personal one, similar in some respects to the one that dictates an investment adviser’s success attracting new clients and retaining them.  It’s about trust, performance, and the ability to continually communicate that you are worthy of one and capable of the other.  To succeed long-term in the financial services business, you need both.  Through good performance, we gain a measure of trust.  However, without a measure of initial trust or risk, there is no opportunity to perform.

About the Author: Kevin Shea is President of InfoSystems Integrated, Inc. (ISI); ISI provides a wide variety of outsourced IT solutions to investment advisors nationwide. For details, please visit isitc.com or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

In an earlier blog I emphasized the importance of mainstream client reporting.  As investment professionals once again turn to the dreaded task of busily cranking out their quarterly reports, it is relevant to share the process we have established to help many of them transition from tired, stale reports to a new generation of client reports. 

In this article, I’ll take you through our process for overhauling client reporting drawing upon specific references to a recent project. Whether you opt to utilize a third-party service provider like us, request Report Writing services from Advent, or produce your next generation client reports internally, you should find the following information useful.  Those that want to implement new reports for Q3 or Q4 of 2011 need to start the process now.

Our Process for Improving Client Reporting

Our fundamental approach addresses the most difficult reporting issues first, identifying any show-stopping problems as early in the process as possible.  We are able to create reports using a number of techniques.  If one way doesn’t work, we can always fall back on another, but our goal is to select the right method from the get-go.

1. Review

In the review stage, advisors need to appraise their current client reporting packages with a critical eye in order to identify what is good and bad about them.  In a nutshell, investors must preserve what is highly valued by clients and remove what is superfluous. The ultimate goal should be to create concise, comprehensive reports that are easily understood, allowing clients to view as little or as much detail as they desire.  Many advisors want to create visually crisp and professional reporting packages.  We understand the importance of this;  however, in the area of client reporting, meaningful content should trump form.

Though we are available and qualified to review client reports and make recommendations for new ones, most firms prefer to do this internally. 

2. Mock-up

A new report always starts with an idea.  Oftentimes, this is shown with a mock-up expressing the look of the desired end product.  In some cases, our customers produce mockups in Excel, but others cut and paste pictures together, or simply sketch them freehand.  Any of these options are fine.  As they say, a picture says a thousand words:  the more detailed the pictures, the less you will have to explain to those writing the reports. 

Most clients have a strong preference as to whether reports appear in landscape or portrait. This aspect of your reports will be more expensive to change as you progress further into the project.  We understand that this decision may have more to do with aesthetic presentation issues, but some report layouts simply require more vertical space or horizontal space than others.  If you are dead-set on a certain orientation, you may need to be more flexible about report content.

Over the years, we have created a wide variety of quarterly reporting packages for clients. Some samples of our work that may help you with your mockup appear on our website under the menu titled “Custom Reports for Axys/APX.”  They fall into three categories:

1 – samples of reports produced by extracting data from Axys/APX and generating reports through traditional report writers like Crystal Reports and SSRS

2 – samples generated directly from Axys/APX through the use of compound report macros

3 – older samples of reports that were generated through a variety of methods

While browsing these above samples, click on any report to view it in larger size.

After viewing all of our online samples and PDF documents, our client produced the following mock-ups for us:

3. Draft

The draft process, as we define it, is one where the reports’ framework is established in the chosen environment.  Roughing out the reports helps determine their feasibility. In the attached example, we started by spending a day onsite, drafting the four account summary-type reports that were requested.   We used a combination of REPLANG, Report Writer Pro, and compound report macros. During this phase of the process, we are not overly concerned about individual details. Instead, we focus on the big picture. Is it possible to create the reports requested? What type of challenges will we face? What tools will be required? What resources, including time, will be required?

There are two possible outcomes to this stage:

  • Validation that the reports can be produced in the selected environment, as well as a better understanding of what they will look like and how much time they will take
  • A recommendation for another methodology, such as SSRS or Crystal Reports, based on the difficulties encountered in attempts to draft the basic report framework

After drafting the four requested summary reports, we were in a better position to estimate the amount of time necessary for development, knew what features would be difficult to implement, and were confident that we could deliver the reports on time.  Our client was also included in the process.  As we drafted each report, we sought their feedback to determine whether things were taking shape as intended.

4. Design

A significant amount of time needs to be spent in the design phase, selecting fonts, styles, colors, chart details, and other elements of presentation related to the reports.   Our client preferred to use the traditional Times New Roman font, but this font choice is one of the reasons most Axys and APX reports look so similar. We selected title bars rather than title boxes to give added flexibility regarding the placement and size of report elements.  Colors are very important. In the past, I have seen clients struggle to pick a palette of colors for charts and graphs. Our client picked vibrant colors that complemented their logo. If you are not already familiar with it, Adobe has a very useful and free resource that you can use to select a color scheme for your reports:

 http://kuler.adobe.com

As a general rule, one should complete design of the master page or default style for all reports before moving on to the next phase.  Report writers and developers are not necessarily graphic designers.  You can save your staff or vendor a lot of grief by having your color schemes selected and logos produced by professional designers.  In particular, your designer should produce images of the proper size, format and quality required.

5. Build & Test

We minimize formatting and style changes by beginning work in this phase only when a client has committed to a design specification.  Ideally, we wouldn’t make any changes to design once we have begun the build phase, but some customers change their minds between the design and build phases.  We also occasionally run into difficulties with pieces of the implementation process or come up with a better way to design something in the process of its implementation.

No matter how a report is created, the formatting of the first in a series of client reports to match the design layout is the most difficult.  However, once the initial report is completed, the rest of the reports come together much faster. The bulk of the time on your project will likely be spent on implementation.  This time depends on the number and complexity of reports you plan to produce, and the resources available.  It will likely take days, if not weeks.

In initial testing, we run reports for a small control group that represents the client’s various types of accounts. We also do a number of report runs for the full group of reports that will be run at quarter end. We find that doing full-scale tests is the best way to identify exceptions and deal with them proactively. As we find issues with individual reports, we apply fixes to address them, and must test again to validate the fixes.

In the example below, our client did a great job illustrating exactly what they wanted and let us focus on producing the report.

Account Summary Mock-up

The final report that we created based on our client’s mock-up shown above follows:

To see other samples of the final reports click here.

It took roughly 30 days to produce the final versions of our customer’s four account summary reports.  The customer was very engaged in the process and highly motivated, facilitating progress by providing quick responses to our questions.   Similar projects take 4-6 weeks, but could take significantly less time if you are working from established reports that just need modification.  You may remember that our initial draft took a day; we spent the rest of the time working on the more difficult aspects of the project.  Our summary reports brought data that needed verification into focus.  Based on exception testing and other issues, we made our final modifications to the reports’ appearance.

The project referenced in this article included new custom reports, quarterly packaging automation, integration of new custom reports, and conversion of legacy packaging to our new report packaging environment.  The project’s total cost was about 20k, nearly double what it would have been with our preexisting custom reports, but the only recurring cost is maintenance.  Many of today’s alternatives feature a sizable implementation cost and significant monthly fees.

Improving your client reporting is one of the most important things you can do to communicate more effectively.  Your next generation of quarterly statements should make it clear to your clients that you are investing in a process that directly benefits them.  If you do it right, you are bound to receive positive feedback from your clients once they have your new reports in hand.

There is no time like the present to start working on your next generation of client reports.

About the Author:
Kevin Shea is President of InfoSystems Integrated, Inc. (ISI); ISI provides a wide variety of outsourced IT solutions to investment advisors nationwide. For details, please visit isitc.com or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

Earlier in the quarter, Advent Software announced that they would make all 62 catalog reports available free of charge to existing Axys users.  The reports are available from Advent’s connection website, and can be downloaded en masse.  Many of these reports will be useful to advisors, but the really good stuff – high-end custom reports – will still come at a cost, whether you get them from Advent or another vendor like ISITC.

Long-time Axys clients have been known to occasionally complain about a lack of recent and significant improvements to the Axys platform, so this move buys Advent relationship points at a very low relative cost.  Hopefully, this is a sign of more progressive client relationship building on Advent’s part, not a reaction to Axys clients saying, “What about us?”

Advent’s announcement also indicates that they will remove the ongoing maintenance fees associated with the catalog reports from their clients’ next invoice at the time of their renewal.  In speaking with one of my clients who renewed last week, we discovered that they had been charged for these reports.  Apparently, the onus is on Axys clients to double-check and make sure that any catalog report fees come off of their invoice.

In any event, Advent’s decision regarding their catalog reports is admirable, and bound to make Axys users smile.

About the Author:
Kevin Shea is President of InfoSystems Integrated, Inc. (ISI); ISI provides a wide variety of outsourced IT solutions to investment advisors nationwide. For details, please visit isitc.com or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

With January 2011 behind us, those responsible for generating statements at your firm are likely breathing a long-awaited sigh of relief –  thankful that the painful process of generating year-end reports for clients is behind them.  For many it is time to take a break until the next quarter is upon them, but for those determined to improve their reports and their process, it’s already time to get back to work.

 Changing your firm’s client statements can be a major undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  There are several different options available to those interested in overhauling the look and feel of quarterly report packages.  These options include: platform changes, outsourcing report production through the purchase of products that produce reports from data feeds and/or data extracts, engaging consultants to create custom reports, buying reports from vendors, or building custom reports yourself.

 The right solution for your firm depends on a number of factors.  Without the specifics it is tough to say what the most effective course of action is.  In my capacity as a consultant to many RIAs, I regularly see and hear about a variety of efforts that have failed to get RIAs the better-looking client reports they desire.

I have witnessed more than a couple of clients attempt to change their platform with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of reports.  This almost never ends well.  There are situations where it does make sense, but in most cases it is much more efficient and less costly to change your reporting than your portfolio management system.

Outsourcing your report production to a firm that specializes in that business can also be a good option, but the question is – do you really need to?  Given the choice of building or buying, what should you do?  When you build a custom report you have an initial sunk cost with little or no maintenance going forward.  When you outsource report production, you typically pay an initial implementation fee and an ongoing service fee that exceeds the ongoing maintenance cost of building reports.

Sometimes the solutions your firm needs are closer than you think.  Axys and APX were designed with clients like you in mind.  In fact, compound reporting exists on both Axys and APX platforms.  Today, compound report creation is still a viable alternative to creating reports using SSRS on APX 3.0 release 2. 

Due to the current limitations of APX’s scripting language related to SSRS, using compound reports may still be the best short-term choice for APX users that wish to automate their systems through the use of APX scripts.  However, APX users sophisticated enough to develop SSRS reports should be able to create stopgap automation to automate APX/SSRS report production.

The ability to combine report objects though compound report macros is adequate for many firms, but the learning curve to create Axys/APX compound report macros that produce the presentation-quality results desired is steep.  What isn’t readily available can usually be produced through utilization of REPLANG/Report Writer Pro/Excel VBA and a combination of chops, grit and perseverance.

Users and consultants experienced with the specifics of Advent’s compound macros know how robust this basic functionality can be and have a good chance of navigating the difficulties involved to produce visually pleasing reports in Axys/APX.

Tech-savvy developers familiar with newer technology like SSRS may experience frustration with what is considered by many to be legacy reporting, but this is a misnomer.  What others term legacy reporting, is actually backward compatibility.  It is not a liability;  it is an asset.  Advent has continued to support both REPLANG and compound reports through a number of iterations of their Axys and APX product lines.  Though it has some limitations, compound reporting is a valuable part of the Axys/APX infrastructure and continues to be an efficient way to quickly combine reports.

For those that would rather not wrestle with the complexities of Axys and APX reporting, our firm has several compound reporting templates available for resale and experience working with SSRS.  Even though the cost to purchase a preexisting custom report is a fraction ( ≈ $1,000) of what it usually costs to create an entirely new custom report ( ≈ $3,000), RIAs typically want new custom reports that are representative of their firm’s distinctive approach to reporting investments to clients.

About the Author:
Kevin Shea is President of InfoSystems Integrated, Inc. (ISI); ISI provides a wide variety of outsourced IT solutions to investment advisors nationwide. For details, please visit isitc.com or contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.

I take issue with the implied generalization that some portfolio management systems are “open” just because they utilize SQL server architecture.  With respect to data formats, a product using a SQL format can be considered “open” and a product using a proprietary format is thought of as “closed”, but this gross simplification of the nature of systems can be ill-used by marketers that need you to need something new before it is ready to fulfill its promise.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for open systems, and a system that leverages SQL server architecture is almost always a plus in comparison to the alternatives. However, to determine whether purchasing a new system will effectively satisfy their requirements RIAs need to understand what the differences between the systems they are considering mean to them in the short-term and long-term . Most RIAs don’t understand the issues at a level sufficient to grasp the near-term pros and cons of SQL based systems without experiencing them firsthand.

Last year, I read an article which said advisors are being held hostage by Portfolio Management Software (PMS) companies. The article called Advent ‘s portfolio management systems closed, but after I posted a lengthy comment, the article was revised changing their closed comment to refer to Axys rather than APX.

My original comment on the article follows:

It was a thought provoking article. However, Advent has been around for over 20 years. It is as much of a standard as you are likely to get in this industry. dBCAMS+ and Portfolio Center have been around about the same time, but Advent’s Axys and APX PMSs are the standard by which other systems are measured.

Though I normally act as an advocate for my investment management clients and not Advent, it isn’t fair to call Advent’s PMSs closed especially when you take into account the scripting, macros, import/export tool and the public views offered in APX. The maturity of the product also makes it easier to find people and resources to help you.

The easiest way to get data from one system to another is hire resources that are qualified to do just that by proof of specific experience. It can be difficult to transfer decades of data, but the issue isn’t necessarily one of standards now. It is difficult because there were not any standards in the past.

Converting a client with 20 years of data can potentially mean bringing a mix of data entered manually, downloaded automatically, and random fields into another system that the data doesn’t easily translate to. The process of translating involves field mapping much the same as you would need to move your contacts from one CRM to another, but it is more difficult because of the nature of transactions that can alternatively appear on one line or multiple lines. Intelligent translation tools interpret multiple lines of transactions simultaneously to determine how individual lines should be translated.

Though Advent does not allow you to import transactions directly into portfolio files, you can import the data easily enough. First you need to convert the source files from your old portfolio management system to Advent’s trade blotter format. Once you have done that you can import them to the trade blotter and then post them to your portfolios.

Getting data out of Advent is not difficult for experienced users. You can export transactions, portfolios, groups, securities, composites, performance files and almost any other data you want. Additional data can be generated as needed via reports written in Advent’s report writing language (REPLANG), or Report Writer Pro which allows you to send report data directly to a CSV format. You can also use SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), Crystal Reports, or even Excel to access APX data via SQL.

Users thinking of switching to other portfolio management platforms should take a hard look at the existing infrastructure of their current platform and compare it to the new system before making a switch. Infrastructure includes support for investment instruments/multi-currency, people, partnerships, third-party solution providers, interfaces, support-levels, standards and delivery.

Investment advisors need to understand the value of being able to get data in and out of their PMSs. Advisors should always own their data, and never be at the mercy of their PMS, or service provider for access to data that would be required to switch to another vendor.

With regard to the ease with which you can switch from one PMS to another, no matter how accessible, and open the data seems to be – conversion from one system to another still requires standardization and mapping that increases in difficulty based on four primary factors: the number of accounts, the number of investment types, age of portfolios and quality of data.

Perhaps the conversion of data from one PMS to another can be best understood with the analogy of translating a book from one language to another.  Some things translate very easily while other aspects can be extremely difficult to get across.  I have also heard a bit of a buzz about how much easier it will be to switch from one system to another once firms go to the more commonly used SQL platform, but this is a generalization and not a rule.  The complexity of conversions has more to do with common denominators (tables and data structures) between systems than the type of data format they share.   PMS software that shares the same data format does not necessarily share the same data structures and logic.

For now it is debateable whether the benefits of a system that really is open outweigh those of a platform that is more mature, reliable and robust without being “open.”  If you have any doubt of this ask firms that are on the cutting (aka bleeding) edge and find out how well it all works right now.  Firms that have available staffing resources with the expertise to create added efficiencies through the use of a SQL based system may be able to leverage a SQL based platform at a level that justifies the cost.  Lean firms should think hard about the costs before making a commitment.  There are probably significantly less expensive options to add efficiencies on their existing platforms.

In a perfect world, all of your software programs would transparently exchange data as needed in an open architecture.  Today, however, you still have to do some work to make your software programs exchange the data. In order for PMS products to be truly open, an Application Program Interface (API) or similar mechanism would need to exist for every system, facilitating the transport of data.  Hypothetically, PMS products could share a single underlying data format, but that is unlikely to happen.  In the interim, products like xPort pave the way for firms to extract data from their PMS and produce high-end reports without the overhead of a platform change.

Some PMS companies, like Schwab’s Performance Technologies, have made use of Extensible Markup Language (XML) as a vehicle to automate data extraction in a format that is more easily interpreted by developers unfamiliar with their SQL database.  XML provides a measure of portability that other formats like CSV, fixed format and tab delimited do not.  Unfortunately for those without XML experience, dealing with data in an XML format represents yet another technological challenge.

We are now entering an era where open standards and integration between systems in the financial sector should accelerate dramatically.  In the past year, the big three (Fidelity, Schwab and TD Ameritrade) appear to have acknowledged open systems as the latest required initiative (and marketing buzzwords) to ensure the continued success of their institutional arms.  And, in fact, left unchecked open standards may be the biggest threat to the relative monopoly these firms enjoy as the technical visionaries of the RIA marketplace.  On some level, the openness of systems is an eventuality.

The big three are technology leaders.  By proactively augmenting the technology available to their instutional clients these firms make it easier for RIAs to do business and subsequently attract more business themselves.  Each of these firms deserves kudos for their achievements thus far, but there is a clear conflict of interest here.  Another goal of these competing firms is most certainly to provide competitive and proprietary technology with the potential to sway and keep business income in their coffers.  On the topic of open systems RIAs should listen to what the big firms say, but keep a watchful eye on what they actually do.

The truth of the matter is that you should want your systems to be more open, but not so open that there aren’t sufficient controls.    Firms with relatively simple requirements may never want to change their platform, but be assured that, just as it has in the past, the platform will change in the future.  The transaction cost to change it will go down as PMS provider’s incentives to sunset older platforms increase.  The question is whether it makes more sense to make a switch now or later. 

Whether you are on a SQL platform or not,  you still need to have work done to automate/integrate your systems and create high-end client statements.  For example,  going to the latest version of APX 3.0 with support for SSRS will not get your firm the custom reports they need overnight.  There is considerable work involved and the latest platform is still relatively new.  APX 3.0 provides a platform, but solutions still need to be built for that platform.  There will be more choices in coming years, but right now I suspect there are more reporting choices on the Axys platform.

Spending money on improving systems infrastucture is necessary, but the what, where and when is critical.  Your firm’s technology expenditures should be timed with your firm’s best interests for tangible results in mind.  In 2011, your company may be better served by adding a new trade order management system, or beefing up your research resources rather than moving to a PMS platform that utilizes SQL server.  The issues vary from firm to firm, but for most this decision demands a disciplined cost benefit analysis with detailed specifics not generalizations. 

Those that decide not to move to a SQL server platform this year should revisit the decision annually.

About the Author:
Kevin Shea is President of InfoSystems Integrated, Inc. (ISI); ISI provides a wide variety of outsourced IT solutions to investment advisors nationwide. For more information, please visit isitc.com , contact Kevin Shea via phone at 617-720-3400 x202 or e-mail at kshea@isitc.com.