After two years in the making, NS&I’s new online portal has been greeted warmly by the adviser community. Andrew Pike, Head of Intermediary Relationships at NS&I, talks to Sue Whitbread about why he and his team are so excited by the launch of this new service which is set to transform the way that the organisation works with advice firms
Back in May, NS&I launched its new online service for financial advice firms. Firms now have secure online access to information on their clients’ NS&I holdings for the first time, via a purpose built portal.
The online service is available via secure log-in on nsandi-adviser.com and gives advice firms online access to a range of information about clients’ NS&I investments. It’s been designed and developed in response to feedback from advice firms over the last few years, which asked that NS&I make it easier for them to do business with the provider.
But what does this new portal actually do and how do you go about accessing it? Once you’ve registered, advice firms will be able to do the following via the new online service:
View a list of their clients with NS&I holdings (subject to a Letter of Authority)
Select a client and view their NS&I portfolio
View the transaction history of an account
Get a valuation of fixed term accounts and see their maturity dates
View copies of communications sent to their clients from NS&I
View a client’s Premium Bonds prize history
NS&I say that all of the developments are designed to make them easier to do business with, for both advice firms and ultimately, for clients. We met up with Andrew Pike, Head of Intermediary Relationships at NS&I, to talk about the new service and why he believes it will provide a sea change in the way which NS&I works with advisers.
IFAM: Andrew, we know that these are early days for your new online portal, but has adviser take-up to date been in line with your expectations?
AP: Indeed, it’s probably too early to say at the moment as the official launch of the portal was only in May, but the signs are looking extremely encouraging. We’re already getting plenty of very positive feedback about it. We realise that it will take time for the message to get out to advisers and their teams about the portal and the benefits it delivers. The new portal represents a significant investment by NS&I. We’ve spent the last two years working on this initiative and it’s very pleasing to see it go live. It’s our belief that ultimately we should get most advice firms registering for this service. The logic behind me saying this is multi-faceted. Advisers know that NS&I is unique in that we have the 100% unique security guarantee because we’re backed by HM Treasury. Another reason is because some of our products, such as Premium Bonds, are unique and attractive. It’s been interesting to see that cash – especially since holistic financial planning has become more widespread in the financial planning profession – has become an integral part of the portfolio planning process rather than a peripheral matter as it was in some cases in the past. Research we’ve carried out recently has shown us that 97% of advisers now discuss clients’ cash positions during conversations with them. It’s a small minority which don’t.
Putting all these things together, we can’t think of any reason why advice firms would not want to register to use the platform. Even if some advisers don’t include NS&I products or cash in their discussions with clients, they will almost certainly have clients who have NS&I products in their portfolios, and so it would make sense for them to be able to access the information on all their financial affairs. Registering for our new service gives them this missing piece of the jigsaw.
IFAM: What’s the user feedback on the new portal been like so far?
AP: I’m pleased to say that feedback from financial advisers, planners and paraplanners has all been extremely positive so far. We’ve had people say to us that it is “revolutionary” and is a “game changer” which I think shows the depth of feeling towards it and how helpful they believe this will be for their businesses and their clients.
The only aspect which advisers have said they’d ultimately like to see on it and which isn’t on the platform yet is Trusts. However, work is underway on this and we plan to integrate it as soon as possible.
Recently, I was speaking at the six PFS ‘Purely Paraplanning’ events which were well attended. I was delighted that so many paraplanners came up to me after they’d heard me talk about the online portal to say how enthusiastic they were about the new service. Even those who hadn’t used NS&I much in the past were saying that as a result of its introduction they’d be looking to use our products more with clients in future. It’s been a great start.
IFAM: The main focus of the new platform is clearly on providing adviser firms with access to information but will it make it easier for advisers to place new business with NS&I too?
AP: Overall we’re hoping that this new service will make advisers’ lives easier because it gives them all the information that they would want about their clients’ holdings with us. It’s not only about valuations and holdings etc, but also they can see all the communications which go out to their clients from NS&I too. In this way they will be fully informed and in control of the relationship. They can be on the front foot with any discussions which are needed and take the initiative to follow up on anything of importance directly with their clients rather than waiting to hear it from them first. Also with Premium Bond prizes being on the platform, advisers can easily calculate the return their clients are getting for the first time.
With this new service we’re aiming for mass market penetration in terms of advice firms. So, if we believe that there are currently around 5,500 advice firms practising in the UK, then we’re aiming to get around two thirds of these firms registered to use our new online portal within the first two years. I can’t see any reason why we can’t achieve that target. Of course, it is likely that we will need the support of paraplanning and administration teams to help integrate the service into their firms. We’re working with them as well as with the adviser community more broadly, to help us to achieve this ambition.
However, in terms of transacting business, essentially this hasn’t changed as a result of the introduction of our new online portal. Application forms for all our products are available on the dedicated NS&I website for advice firms – the Adviser Centre. Advice firms tend to print them off and complete them, ask their clients to sign and then send the forms in to us. This hasn’t changed. However, transactional access is a logical next step for us to look at developing, but we need to walk before we can run in this regard. We need to get the new information access facility fully embedded with adviser firms having registered and using it before we progress to the next stage.
We will start to research transactional access requirements with advice firms and other parties next year. Part of that will be to look at the different options as to how we might do it. One option would be to add it to the service we’ve just launched. Another option is to add NS&I products to third party platforms. There’s also the question of integration with cash management systems, and maybe even back office systems. We’ll be assessing all of these options in due course. However, it’s important to stress that it will be mostly driven by the appetite of advice firms, by their specific requirements and where their priorities indicate we need to deliver. We need to ensure that we spend our money wisely in any developments we bring in and so it is important for us to be very thorough in our research and deliver what advisers actually want and need most. When we carried out research on transactional access a few years ago, the large majority of advisers told us that they wanted information access as a priority but they also indicated that transactional access might be useful too. Once we’ve got the online portal embedded, with most advice firms registered, then we can build on that and go to the next level.
IFAM: How does the portal work in practice? How can you safely ensure that the whole support team within the adviser firm can access the portal?
AP: Importantly, all staff in an advice firm can be granted access by a ‘super-user’ in the firm, including all advisers, planners, paraplanners and administrators. It’s up to the firm itself to decide who gets access. As part of the research we carried out when developing the service, one element that firms told us would be important for them was to get whole firm access to the portal. This has been delivered. To register, there are two documents which must be completed. We’ll need ‘letters of authority’ for clients of course plus we require one ‘terms of business’ agreement to be completed per firm. This basically forms the contractual arrangement between us, the adviser firm and their clients. Those documents are designed to facilitate whole firm access as they’re in the name of the firm not individuals. This is all set up initially with a ‘super- user’ – the first person in a firm to use it. They’ll get an automated email coming through with a link. In the case of medium-sized firms, perhaps with around 15 staff in one location, they’ll probably need a couple of super-users within the firm to cover annual leave, sickness etc. Beyond this, it will be up to the firm itself to whom they feel comfortable giving access – although of course that would be normal user access. For larger firms where there may be 10 or 12 branches for example, then each branch will probably need a super-user. The security behind all this, us being NS&I, is particularly robust as advisers will expect, because we’re linked to government. This brings considerable peace of mind to all parties.
IFAM: Has the introduction of the new portal helped to boost your engagement with advice firms?
AP: Yes it has, although these are early days. As I’ve said, the feedback we’ve had already has been extremely positive. I’ve witnessed that enthusiasm for it first hand at a number of adviser events at which I’ve spoken since we’ve launched the platform. We expect that this new portal will create a real sea change in our engagement with adviser firms. Although we’re lucky that advice firms are largely positive about dealing with NS&I, I say this as we usually score 8/10 in terms of adviser advocacy, we also know that historically they have sometimes been frustrated with our service because we haven’t made it very easy for third parties to get access to the information they need. This new development addresses the issue head on. It takes away the last barrier which we believe might stop an adviser recommending NS&I products. We hear more and more that we are now being seen by advisers as the default home for the cash element of a client’s portfolio and this is especially so since the service was launched. Ultimately it’s about us giving firms easier, faster access and more information than they’ve had before – and to all relevant staff.
I think that there is one important aspect about NS&I which is often overlooked by advisers. Sometimes we get grouped together with other product providers such as banks and building societies. I can understand this of course, as some of the products we offer are similar to those that they offer. But we also have our own unique products too. However, the really key difference about NS&I is that we don’t have our own branches and we don’t have our own advisers. We really need advice firms – and I would argue that they need us too. The relationships which advisers have with us are very different to those which they would have with a bank or building society.
IFAM: What are the most popular NS&I products with advisers? Why do you think this is?
AP: Premium Bonds remain a very popular choice with advisers of course. We did some research a few years ago which told us that 75% of advisers recommend Premium Bonds regularly. One told me recently that they wouldn’t actually have someone as a client unless they had Premium Bonds in their portfolio! But it’s not just about Premium Bonds. NS&I Income Bonds are also popular. This is not just because they offer a monthly income but also because they have a high maximum investment limit of £1m, which is also 100% secure, so FSCS rules are not cause for concern. Income Bonds can also be held in a SIPP, SSAS or a trust. Our Direct Saver product is also very popular – it’s an entry level savings account – but one which has a £2m maximum limit. For a couple it means that up to £4m can be invested securely. Sometimes advisers will use this account as a temporary home for cash if they are dealing with a client who has come into a windfall – maybe through a lottery win or Premium Bond win or any other means. This then gives them the time to build the financial plan and the longer term investment strategy whilst knowing that the money is 100% secure.
As well as the security element and the enhanced information service now available, there’s also something of a ‘brand halo’ effect going on when a firm works with NS&I. I know it’s a rather corny term but NS&I is typically seen as the most trusted financial services provider by both advisers and their clients. Advice firms have told us that a recommendation of NS&I products to a client – new clients in particular – has often engendered additional trust by those clients in their firm and their advice process. We’re delighted to hear this is happening as we believe that there’s real synergy between sound financial planning and the products and services which NS&I provides. The new portal represents a significant investment by NS&I and is a clear statement of our intent to form closer ties with adviser firms, to the benefit of all parties.
Further information on the new online service – including how to register – is available on the NS&I Adviser Centre website (nsandi-adviser.com).
About Andrew Pike
Andrew is a financial services professional with over 25 years’ experience in key account management, business development and marketing. He has managed partnerships with several large blue-chip organisations as well as being a primary interface for SMEs. For the last four years he has led the team that manages NS&I’s relationship with the financial advice community.