Software for Independent Financial Planners

In a  recent blog entry Tom Peters addressed the  question, "Can a small financial services firm compete in a world of Citigroups and Bank of Americas?" Peters put together a list of 16 ‘Must Dos’, Two of the ‘Must Dos’  especially caught my eye:

  • " Sophisticated use of information technology.* (Small-"ish" is no excuse for "small aims"/execution in IS/IT!" 
  • "Web-power!* (The Web can make very small very big … if the product-service is super-cool and one purposefully masters buzz/viral marketing.)"

They caught my attention because the software for independent financial planners that we are piloting right now will help small financial planners compete with the big guys. If you are an independent financial planner who manages your customer’s assets and you are interested in helping us pilot test our software drop me an email marion_vermazen at intuit.com.

As I was writing this blog entry I discovered that  Tom Peters recently posted a blog entry about what he has learned in his first year of blogging. It resonated with me and it gave me a new perspective on a couple of things like the power of small posts and how blogging breaks can lead to better blogging. I really enjoy reading The Tom Peters blog. It is a group blog and the posts are almost always interesting and thought provoking.

Blogging Articles

There were two big articles about blogging in our local paper, The Argus, today. The first article titled Mainstreaming the blog, Corporate America leaps into the ‘blogosphere‘ is on the front page of the business section and features a half page picture of Paul Rosenfeld who is Mr Blogging at Intuit. He is general manager of the QuickBooks Online Edition group. I stopped by his office a couple of weeks ago and introduced myself. I was really impressed by his enthusiasm for blogging. I have pointed to the Online Edition Blog group blog several times.

The article quotes Technorati’s CEO Dave Sifry, "three-quarters of the  of the 9000 corporate blogs that Technorati has tracked are high tech companies and most of the rest are related to high-tech." There is no doubt that blogging has been slow to move beyond high tech. I can’t make up my mind whether I think blogging will catch on beyond high tech. On the one hand blogging is such a powerful medium and things that are big in high tech usually catch on elsewhere. But on the other hand you have to be a bit of a  techie at heart to blog and most people I know outside of my tech friends don’t really get it or even care about blogging. I’d really be interested in other people’s opinions on this subject.

The second article in The Argus is about employees who get in trouble blogging. Although it is not a new subject I did learn a few new things. I didn’t realize that to be dooced means to be fired because of your blog. Apparently the name comes from the first person to have that happen.

Blogging Easy?

I totally agree with Chuq. I just want to blog. I don’t have much interest in understanding the difference between Atom and RSS. I also use TypePad and I really like how easy it makes blogging. But easy is relative. I noticed that Chuq has pictures on  the side panel of his blog so I thought I would try to do the same. I also use Flickr so I knew it could be done. The trick was figuring out how to do it. Luckily I love a puzzle and a challenge and I’m pretty good with technology. It took me about an hour but I finally figured it out. The bottom line is that TypePad does make blogging easy but there are lots of parts of it that aren’t very intuitive.

Customer Engagement Tools

I really believe in the importance of  encouraging conversations with our customers. Just the other day I posted the Cluetrain Manifesto on the wall of my cube. I used to be kind of a blog snob. I  assumed that the only real way to have a cluetrain like conversation was through a blog. Since coming to Intuit it has been interesting to see the many other ways this can happen.The Medical Expense Manager Forum is quite impressive. If anything the forum’s structure  fosters more conversation and feedback about a specific product (in this case Quicken Medical Expense Manager) than the blog format would. A key to the success of this forum over others I have seen is the very active participation and nurturing of Quicken Lisa in the forum. She has 136 total posts since January and she has a wonderful ability to be both authentic and caring in her writing..

Another mechanism that is interesting to watch is The Official QuickBooks Online Weblog. It is a group blog by the Quickbooks Online Edition Team. Group blogs have a different dynamic than individual blogs but  the QuickBooks Online blog seems to be building a following and engaging with customers. Just las for Medical Expense Manager the individuals in the group who do most of the posting are what make it effective.

As I’ve said in other postings I am trying to determine how to best engage our future customer base. At this point I am leaning towards a forum for product specific engagement. We may also have a product blog but I think that might be too much overlap.

The third method of engagement is my personal blog. In my personal blog Intit products are just one of many subjects. The blog may allow me to connect with customers on a personal level. In a forum or a group blog the product is the primary focus but in a personal blog the product is almost secondary.

It will be very interesting to watch how these different mechanisms evolve and  how effective they become, It will also be very interesting to see what tools companies are using 5 years from now to engage customers and build community.

I guess the one thing that I’ve realized in writing this posting is that what makes any tool work as a customer conversation tool is not so much the tool as it it the people who are using the tool. Whether it be forums, group blogs or individual blogs, active, real engagement by real people is what makes them work. To quote Cluetrain, "(Companies) will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf."

What other tools am I missing? Can anyone point me to good examples of other mechanisms companies are using to engage with their customers?

Randon links and thoughts

Having the time to do a bit of blog reading and comments  this morning was so nice. It is impossible to keep up with all the blogs I would like to read.  I have a short list of blogs I try to always read because they almost always have interesting thought provoking stuff.

The A list includes Jonathan Schwartz  who is as entertaining to read as he is to listen to. His latest posting about why he hasn’t blogged in a month had me laughing out loud and of course I like to keep up with what is going on at my alma matter.

I’ve added Andy Lark’s blog to the list. He talks about stuff I am interested in and he is also a very entertaining writer. His pointer to these kits to build your own cube seems quite timely for me since I’ve gone from having an office wherever I reserved one (Sun and iWork) to having my very own cube (Intuit). Andy also has a recent posting about a study which showed that people just don’t understand blogs. This is absolutely true. I’ve been talking to a lot of financial planners lately and when I mention my blog I either get a blank stare or a question about why would I write a blog. Usually though no matter who I mention it to I just get a lack of interest. This article that he pointed to from AdAge is also very worth reading. It talks about how  although things like Tivo and blogs make it less likely people will see conventional advertising this just means things are changing. It doesn’t mean the end of marketing and advertising.

Finally this interview with Sun CIO Bill Vass from ZDNet Australia is very good. I used to work for Bill Vass and I have an enormous amount of respect for him. What he says about blogging making lawyers very nervous is very very true. I’ve talked before about how the risk of  saying something in a blog that gets your company in trouble with the SEC making companies nervous about blogging. It explains why Bill doesn’t blog publicly. It is too bad because I know he would be fascinating. On the other hand as a Sun stock holder I can see how the visionary posts he would undoubtedly write would make lawyers very nervous.

Harry Potter Party

My daughter, Allison taught 4th grade last year. She promised the 5 students who had reached their reading goals at the end of the year that she would take them to the Harry Potter party at Hicklebees today and that they would get the new Harry Potter book as their prize for reaching their goals. Today 3 of the five were able to go. Julia, Duy and Tanya  went with Allison and me. It was lot of fun. We dressed up and there were games and prizes.  All three of them are avid readers. Duy is especially impressive. He came form Viet Nam and this was his first year of school in the United States. At the beginning of the year he could not read or write English at all. By the end of the year he  was almost at a fourth grade reading level and he reached his reading goal. All 5 kids and Allison and I are looking forward to reading the new book. I just talked to Allison. She said she is about half way through.

This was Allison’s last year teaching. She decided that although teaching has a lot of rewards it was not for her. She completed the two year Teach For America commitment and has accepted a new job that starts in August.  She will be working for Inside Track. She is hoping to be able to continue to volunteer at the school. I am very proud of what she achieved as a teacher.

Book Club

I went to my book club meeting Tuesday night. The book was A Perfect Peace by Amos Oz.  It is the story of a group of people living in a kibbutz  in the mid 60s. In particular it is about Yonaton who was born and raised on the kibbutz but has decided to leave his wife and the kibbutz, run away and start a new life.

Oz is an exceptional writer. The way he develops his characters and their complex relationships made me feel like I knew these people. It made me care about them. He also makes the environment, the weather and the kibbutz  very real. His cast of characters is quirky but you can tell that he has a soft spot in his heart for them. While reading this book it hit me that a lot of writers must not like their characters very much.

Oz has to be one of the best writers alive today and the book is top notch. Despite that, it is not a book that I would necessarily recommend. I set  myself a goal to read 50 pages a day during my vacation and I never felt the urge to go beyond my assignment for the day. In spite of the fact that it didn’t grab me it is an excellent book and I am glad I read it.

Vacation

Do you know what taconite is? I didn’t before my vacation. I always keep my eyes and ears open for interesting or surprising things that I think will make interesting blog reading. Our vacation was a wonderful  relaxing and unsurprising mid western week. At different times in my life I’ve lived in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and North Dakota. I have a lot of Midwestern roots. Anyway…. back to taconite. It is low grade iron ore. Direct shipped ore is 50% to 60% iron. Taconite is 20% to 30% iron and is crushed and shipped as pellets.  I learned this from a highway rest area sign  in the Black River Valley in Wisconsin  where they mine taconite.

We had a great vacation. The weather was warm and the humidity was uncharacteristically low. We took a red eye flight into Chicago on July 3. We were in the loop area by 7am and spent a few hours exploring. We went to The Art Institute of Chicago. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many Monets in one place. I am always  surprised by how much Monet’s use of color and light wows me. We spent a  few hours in the museum and then explored the  relatively new Millennium Park and got to  see the very cool fountains with lots of kids playing in the water. The fountains are two 50 foot high glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers are covered in flowing water and display video faces. Every so often the faces open their mouths and shoot out an extra stream of water. It is a lot of fun to watch.

After leaving Chicago we spent three nights with  my Uncle and Aunt at  their cabin on Lake Sissabagama in northern Wisconsin. There were surprisingly few bugs and we got to sit out by a fire in the front yard overlooking the lake to watch the July 4th fireworks. One day my uncle took us canoeing on Bean Brook and another day we sailed on the lake. We had a great visit. It is a wonderful place.

On Thursday we drove to Iowa, stopping along the way to search out the cemeteries containing the graves of my  Great Grandparents, Great Great Grandparents and Great Great Great Grandparents all of whom lived and are buried in south  western Wisconsin.

We spent the rest of our time in Manchester, Iowa. We stayed with Duke’s brother and his wife and  spent a lot of time visiting with Duke’s parents and doing a few odd jobs. I even got to drive the riding lawn mower to help mow the yard. One night we went to dinner in  Elkader  overlooking the  Turkey River and the keystone bridge  which is the longest of its type west of the Mississippi.

Monday we drove back to Chicago and flew home. It never ceases to amaze me how different California is from the Midwest. I really enjoyed it.