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H&R Block Financial Advisors cuts ties that bind

H&R Block Financial Advisors' plug-and-play SOA achieves freedom of choice and product independence.

Freedom is ringing at H&R Block Financial Advisors Inc., thanks to the company's service-oriented architecture (SOA). When the license renewal came up for its lead management system, the company decided to take matters into its own hands and utilize its SOA rather than re-up -- saving both money and resources to support the product. And because the company's SOA is true plug-and-play, the message is clear: Any product is replaceable.

"There was a significant reinvestment required in recommitting to the [lead management] product," said Scott Thompson, head of application development for H&R Block Financial Advisors, in the Kansas City, Mo., office. "We took the opportunity to evaluate where the lead management system stood. Our SOA had matured to a point where we thought we could do just as good, if not better, than this product provided. We saved ourselves several million in license costs, and eliminated 70% to 80% of the resources required to support the product."

We designed the new system as plug-and-play; it's not dependent on any one product.
Scott Thompson
Head of Application Development H&R Block Financial Advisors Inc.

H&R Block Financial Advisors, based in Detroit, is a subsidiary of H&R Block Inc., and a full-service broker-dealer with more than $28 billion in assets under management. H&R Block local tax offices supply leads -- after the individual tax clients give their OK -- to the local offices of H&R Block Financial Advisors.

The tax professionals enter their data into an internal Windows-based application referred to as WinTPS (tax preparation software). Certain data is then published to a messaging infrastructure from Tibco Software Inc., Palo Alto, Calif. H&R Block Financial Advisors' lead routing system "listens" for information pertaining to the leads, Thompson explained. That information is then sent to H&R Block Financial Advisors' customer relationship management (CRM) system. "[The financial advisers] have specialized views in our CRM product that will show them new leads and allow filtering based upon specific criteria, like 'Give me all new leads who just changed jobs in the last year,'" Thompson said.

With the previous system, leads were received in a similar manner, but they were placed in a proprietary extension to the third-party lead management system, Thompson said. It took 12 to 24 hours for financial advisers to receive the leads; now it takes seconds.

"Every aspect of the lead system is wrapped in a Web service of some sort, anywhere from the original acquisition of the lead to the delivery of the lead," Thompson said. "We use a messaging infrastructure to move leads around, and Tibco BusinessWorks, which acts as an orchestrator."

Thompson said his organization used .NET and C# to develop the lead routing system.

"We can interchange any of those pieces. If we decide Tibco is not the direction anymore, and we want to go with [Microsoft's] BizTalk, there'd be work involved, but our service layer [wouldn't] change."

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H&R Block Financial Advisors manages its SOA with software from AmberPoint Inc., Oakland, Calif. "The lead system was our first and by far largest implementation of the SOA to date; we knew Web services management would be a necessity," Thompson said.

The system just went into production this tax season, so the company hasn't yet quantified return on investment. However, Thompson said user satisfaction is high.

"Because of the approaches we took with making [the] system an SOA-related architecture, and bringing in AmberPoint and Tibco where appropriate, I think satisfaction levels will get even better. We can accommodate change in a lot quicker fashion. The developers know they can think about solving a business problem instead of managing exceptions or security. And if we decide there's a better one [Web services management product] out there, we can pull that out, too."

Freedom of choice is the overall theme, Thompson said. "Previously, we were dependent on a particular product. We designed the new system as plug-and-play; it's not dependent on any one product."

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