Outside voices and views for advisers

Meet the humans behind algorithmic investing

They may not pay house calls, but robo-advisers still value flesh-and-blood people dedicated to delivering sound strategies and great client experiences.

Jun 20, 2014 @ 10:01 am

By Megan Graf

Frankenstein. Luddites. The robot apocalypse. Technology running roughshod over humans has been haunting our collective imagination for centuries. As finance changes, it's easy for industry veterans to cast robo-advisers as being on the wrong side of a war against humanity. But what about the humans behind the algorithms?

The “robo” part of robo-adviser automates portfolio management, but it takes far more human oversight to automate something as nuanced as client service. That's where I come in.

(More: Read about why Megan Graf left a traditional RIA for a robo-adviser)

As a specialist in our client services group, I can tell you that our customers' needs — and our primary focus — aren't different than what any other adviser might encounter: We need to communicate complex ideas while alleviating fear. We need to push through apathy so that clients act in a timely fashion. The difference at a robo-adviser is in how we address those questions, fears and needs.

Our client services team works hand-in-hand with the engineering team to monitor the client experience and FutureAdvisor's own back-office processes. We look for any opportunity to replace a manual task with an automated feature. That could be a nice interactive graph, or a smooth signup form. It's come as a surprise to me that my job is as much product management as it is friendly service.

For example, a lag between online sign-up and actually getting paperwork to our clients used to cause frustrating delays, so we built a feature to download the paperwork and securely upload it via the FutureAdvisor site. Our team proposes changes to online materials and website content based on client questions we've received, and engineering builds features to more easily monitor incoming accounts, transfers, and trading needs. We sit just feet from each other, so coordination is as easy as swiveling in your seat.

FutureAdvisor's technology isn't a replacement for employees like me. It's a constantly evolving extension of our powers that increases our productivity and relieves us of menial tasks. There is nothing we do manually more than a few times before the engineers build something to do it for us. That's the great lesson of computer science: software should handle the repetitive tasks. It keeps costs low, and employees stimulated and productive.

In terms of portfolio management, our clients' essential needs are met. Traditional human advisers have been automating portfolio management for almost a decade. FutureAdvisor just took that idea and distributed it directly to consumers.

(Don't fear robo-advisers — they can help your firm grow)

The larger lesson here is that we're all somewhere on a spectrum that mixes humans with software to get the job done. There's a little robo in all advisers, and a lot of robo on the end where FutureAdvisor sits, but plenty of human, too.

We may not pay house calls, but behind our platform are flesh-and-blood people dedicated to delivering well-researched investment strategies and a great client experience.

From our perspective, robo-advising offers investors the privacy of online engagement and self-directed learning, which can be preferable for busy people who don't need to talk to someone about their money all the time.

In a sense, we're dealing with investors comfortable with a digital experience. They enter their own information online, and don't need an adviser to transcribe it during a face-to-face meeting. That's just one of the ways that FutureAdvisor is making this whole process more efficient.

The more tech can lower the costs of doing business, the more we can offer services like portfolio management to people who never had access before. And when they call to ask about it, I'll be on the other end of the line.

Megan Graf is a client service specialist with online advice platform FutureAdvisor. If you have questions about life and work at a robo-adviser, feel free to e-mail her.

The views expressed represent the opinion of the author and are not intended to reflect those of FutureAdvisor or serve as a forecast, a guarantee of future results, investment recommendations or an offer to buy or sell securities.


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