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Defeating robo-advisers will take more than a pulse

At T3 conference, digital disruption evokes both fear and complacency

Nov 6, 2013 @ 8:50 am

By JP Nicols

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A “robo-adviser” joined MoneyGuidePro founder and chief executive Bob Curtis on stage at this week's T3 Enterprise conference and proceeded to melt down when Mr. Curtis asked it qualitative questions like “I'm worried I won't be able to retire when I planned, can you help me with that?”

During his opening keynote, Mr. Curtis was speaking about the future of advice delivery and digital disruption, when a colleague in a silver robot costume shuffled to the stage as rock band Styx's “Mr. Roboto” provided the appropriate theme music. The robo-adviser recited its advantages such as “You can call me at 3 a.m., I never sleep.” In a robotic voice, naturally.

I suspect that many advisers were initially chuckling in comfort as Mr. Curtis overloaded the droid's circuits by asking follow-up questions, but that comfort didn't last long. He then warned of the constantly improving capabilities of the more tech-centric firms, which will increasingly be able to provide answers to more and more complex questions. More importantly, he correctly described how they're raising the bar for clients' expectations about investment firms' client-facing technology.

More than one presentation at T3 mentioned competing with robo-advisers. I did not coin that moniker, which some have taken to be derisive, and I am not anti-robo. I am a fan of any approach that uses technology to make advice delivery more widely available and comprehensive at the same time. Though catchy, the term is not even very accurate for most firms it's been used to describe — most are RIAs with real, live strategists and sometimes even real, live advisers and financial planners.

Yes, they have web portals and mobile apps and model portfolios and interactive planning tools, but so does nearly every other firm. The big difference is that they designed their client experience around the latest innovations and built their internal processes around that, rather than bolting new technology onto 1970s architecture and processes.

Their technology also allows them to start a relationship with an aggregated view of their clients' total holdings, as Mr. Curtis pointed out. That's a claim that only 10% of advisers can make today, according to CEB TowerGroup.

MORE THAN JUST A PULSE

I am certainly not anti-adviser either. As technology-oriented as I am, I cannot envision a future that doesn't have live financial advisers, but many will have to change to compete in the future. Especially in a world in which 68% of advisers rate their own technology as “fair” or worse, and 63% rate the integration of their tools the same way, according to Patrick Yip from Pershing and David McClellan from Albridge Solutions Inc.

The real challenge goes deeper than just technology, though. I have heard advisers dismiss their cyber challengers with arguments that are flimsy and often just plain wrong.

“My clients aren't that tech-savvy”, they say, or “My clients want to talk to a real person.” Those points may be true in certain instances, but advisers will need more than just a pulse to compete with and beat the robos.

In other words, the mere fact that you're human being isn't a sustainable competitive advantage. Yes, some clients are technophobic, but most learn to appreciate the efficiency and 24/7 availability that technology can provide, not to mention the very real cost efficiencies. Advisers still have the edge in emotional intelligence and the ability to help protect clients from their own worst instincts, but they will need to make the best use of those advantages to create real value on the clients' terms. As InStream chief executive Alex Murguía put it, “My clients don't need a friend, they need an adviser.”

Remember, as science fiction author (and coiner of the term cyberspace) William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.”

What do you think? How can advisers really compete with high tech firms? How will advisers have to adapt to have a competitive advantage? Join the conversation!

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JP Nicols is chief executive of the research and innovation firm Clientific, and a partner at Bank Solutions Group. He writes about leadership, innovation and strategy for numerous industry publications, and on his blog at jpnicols.com.

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