Don't experiment on clients! 

This is the path of wisdom, O Grasshopper.  It's not a particularly profound lesson, but because it's one I learned the hard way, it seems appropriate to set it out here.

A few years back, I was actively seeking to identify simpler and lower-cost investment solutions for clients - with the aim of rolling these out to ValidPath Members.  This necessarily involved revisiting our Platform due-diligence, and I discovered that Alliance Trust Savings (ATS) offered a particularly attractive set of terms where the number of holdings was limited.  So low were the charges, that I looked closely at solutions which might only use one or two funds - the kind of approach which can relatively easily be achieved using highly-diversified, risk-graded investments supplied by the likes of Vanguard (LifeStrategy) and Dimensional (World Allocation).

On paper, everything stacked up very convincingly, but I had never before dealt with ATS.   A good friend (and Member of ValidPath) said "Don't do it - you'll regret  it", but I felt almost duty-bound to experiment with my own money.  After all, what could go wrong?  I had absolutely no reservations about the underlying investments which I had used in the past with extremely acceptable results, and where I knew exactly what I was getting.

To be fair, there was little wrong with the old ATS platform.  It was clunky and lacked the intuitive touch we've come to expect elsewhere, but it worked, and I felt that for the price I really had no basis to grouse.  Even when the platform was acquired by Embark, functionality continued to be acceptable.

But then... Embark moved assets off the old ATS system onto their own.  The new logins went straight into spam, but even when I did find them, they were largely incomprehensible and, more importantly, they did not work.  When I contacted Embark early in January, they had no explanations, told me that my account was set up incorrectly, and promised to get back to me.  I was given an account reference number for the first time, but this has subsequently proven to be incorrect.

I heard nothing further.  When I chased them again in February, there was quite a bit of head-scratching over what possibly might be the matter, but I did at least get some new logins, again without any kind of explanatory narrative (Why two sets? Which is which?), which again failed to enable me to access our own investments.

So here I was, some six months or so after the transition to Embark, without access to my investments, a non-functional system which apparently excluded access to my own assets, and absolutely no sense that anyone at Embark was likely to fix the problem.  What would you do?  I completed and submitted the documentation for an in-specie transfer onto Transact, a platform that I know works, and where there are sentient beings who actually know what they're doing.  A month or so later, I've made a formal complaint, because apparently Embark have no record of our account, and are therefore unable to engage with Transact.

Why am I telling you this?  There is little to be gained by simply venting spleen.  I'd like you to imagine the situation if the above narrative of woe came to you from one of your own clients.  The whole point of my own 'experiment' was that no real clients would be harmed in the process.  But what if, suffused with a warm optimistic glow, and persuaded entirely by the evidence of those deliciously low charge figures, I'd started putting clients onto this platform?  Can you even begin to imagine the world of pain that would now define your advisory proposition?

Nope.  Let's not go there.  And now note this:  one of the UK largest Networks has recently announced its plans to standardise its solution on the Embark platform.

I am thankful that, in this instance, I chose to experiment on myself.  Mind you, I'm not aiming to repeat the practice when it comes to dentistry, or open-heart surgery.


Kevin Moss, 30/03/2021