Celestis Broker Services is a wholly owned subsidiary of Old Mutual, one of South Africa’s largest insurers. It provides a range of business services to professional financial advisors including practice management, technology support and compliance services. Celestis was started in 2005 to support the growing professionalisation of financial advisors, which is turn driven partly by the stringent compliance requirements introduced by new laws like the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act (FAIS).

Advisors do not contract with Celestis directly, but rather through a number of distribution organisations including Old Mutual’s Broker and Agency Franchise divisions, Bond Choice and the Masthead Financial Advisors Association, the largest network of independent brokers in South Africa.
As of early 2007 Celestis had around 10 000 clients to whom it aimed to supply a level of technical and business support that would otherwise only be available to members of large companies.
Celestis offers distinct groups of services to different customer groups, depending on the agency with which they are contracted. One of the largest customer groups is brokers attached to Old Mutual’s Broker division, who receive free IT support as part of their membership. There are also about 3 000 members of Masthead who receive free compliance services and practice management advice as part of their membership in addition to the IT support. All in all, Celestis has five distinct client types.
Typically, a broker consultant providing compliance and practice management services will schedule four visits a year to each advisor – often timed to help the advisor meet deadlines for Financial Services Board audits. Technical support is necessarily offered more reactively, but if a site visit must be made Celestis tries as far as possible to make this coincide with a scheduled visit – especially when consultants must drive long distances to see their clients.
In order to provide its services at all, Celestis must maintain detailed information on all the advisors it serves, covering everything from the IT hardware and software they have installed to the financial products they sell and the turnover of their practice – even their golf handicaps. Before visiting one of their clients, broker consultants at each member agency view all the client’s information to decide what is needed.
With so much sensitive client information on record, Celestis needed a customer relationship management (CRM) system that could guarantee confidentiality. Because it also serves clients of several different – in some cases competing – companies, Celestis also had to make sure its CRM system distinguished reliably and easily between different user groups and offered high levels of security.
The system also needed to be easy to customise and maintain, easy to use, provide a clear upgrade path, have the backing of a major industry player and offer low total cost of ownership.
Starting in early 2005, Celestis reviewed all the major CRM suites on the market and discovered that most of them didn’t meet the organisation’s requirements. In the words of IT manager Herman Karsten, “the big names were expensive, difficult to maintain and allowed for very little customisation. We would have needed to call in experts every time we wanted to make a couple of changes.”
When reseller Liquid Thought showed Karsten Microsoft Dynamics CRM he was instantly impressed. “It had everything we were looking for – in fact better functionality than some of the big name systems – at a fraction of the cost.” An added advantage was close integration with Microsoft Outlook, which most users were already familiar with.
Celestis implemented Microsoft CRM for all its employees – just over 200 – in 2005.
Karsten describes himself as “a very happy customer”.  Not only did Microsoft CRM deliver all his requirements at exceptionally low total cost of ownership, he and his staff have also been deeply impressed by the ease with which Microsoft CRM can be customised – without compromising their ability to upgrade successfully to new versions.  
The Celestis team has created several custom tabs in the contact window, for example, as well as a host of custom fields. Access to different parts of the database is easy to control through the system of entities, which are easily created and changed.
“We’re currently in the middle of a major reconfiguration of the database to make some of the access issues easier to handle, and it’s taken a couple of days using the very intuitive front-end interface. In most systems a similar project would take months using specialist skills, or not be possible at all.”
Thanks to Microsoft CRM’s integration with the familiar Outlook, Karsten says there were few initial problems with user acceptance, notoriously one of the most difficult issues in CRM implementations.  “We did have to do some basic PC literacy training as well as explaining CRM principles and some elements of computer etiquette, but the training requirements were not huge.”
There were some issues with users who didn’t want to take time to add or update information, says Karsten: “People find very innovative ways of bypassing the system. But we’ve been able to do some refinements and customisations that have fixed the problem. A year down the line people know what to do and are seeing the benefits, so there’s no lack of willingness to use the system – but we still do lots of tracking and monitoring to be sure things stay that way.”
In fact, says Karsten, acceptance is now so high that users are constantly requesting new fields. “Customising it is so easy that we have to be careful to keep the database trim”.
As a final bonus, Karsten says the system’s low bandwidth requirements have made it much easier for broker consultants to use in the field.
“We don’t have a private network and are completely reliant on the public telecommunications infrastructure,” he says. “Our consultants do sometimes tell us that access is slow when they’re in remote areas or at peak usage times, but the system is so light on bandwidth that those are exceptions.”  Microsoft Dynamics CRM also offers offline capabilities so that consultants can work offline while in the field, then synchronise with the central server when they’re next online.
“We’ve all heard horror stories about CRM implementations,” says Karsten. “I’ve heard of systems that were installed at great expense, alienated everyone in the organisation and then got thrown out three years later, or went vastly over budget. Our experience has been a dream by comparison.”