Contemplating Possible Futures for Robo-Advice

While there is some uncertainty about the specifics, digital advice clearly has an important role to play in the advising industry for the years and decades to come.

One observer cited in a new study by the CFP Board and Heidrick & Struggles predicts assets under management among robo-advisers will grow to nearly $500 billion by 2020—an increase of 2,500% over 2015.

Much of the dramatic shift towards robo-advice will be pushed by the Department of Labor (DOL) fiduciary rule, researchers predict—and traditional advisers should be concerned, given that the complex rulemaking “puts nearly $17 billion of advisory fees in the crosshairs.”

According to CFP Board, there are a range of specific scenarios that could play out in the years ahead when it comes to the proliferation of digital advice. Some believe everyone will go digital and that “automation and digital tools will reign supreme, while regulation keeps direct personal advice fragmented among specialized providers.”

Others argue that digital solutions and service will transform the back office, undoubtedly, but even if this happens many customers will continue to value the human adviser—most notably when it comes to interpreting and helping to implement recommendations made by advanced digital tools. Many others predict advisers will still have an important role to play in helping clients set goals, which can then be pursued through digital tools. 

There are other possible scenarios as well, but as robo-advisers expand, researchers expect scrutiny of fees and cyber-security to play a very important role in shaping demand.

NEXT: Tiered service models a likely future 

The research finds one successful approach to digital advice could be to introduce a tiered service model in which an online-only client base can opt for deeper, human-delivered service as needed for an additional annual fee. A second approach sees firms leveraging human advisers across the board for all clients as a supplementary service, where dedicated advisers are assigned to each account and available on-demand when needed.

Both models, researchers explain, can be efficient and low-touch while also allowing each human adviser to engage personally with a much greater number of clients—the key point is that human advisers are no longer doing the difficult account maintenance legwork that machines are better suited for anyway. 

“The role of the human adviser in an ‘everyone goes digital’ world has changed significantly,” the analysis predicts. They will function “more under the model of a family doctor than a specialist—adding value as a general practitioner through the coordination of experts with deeper knowledge of specific areas, e.g. estate planning, tax planning or life insurance.”

The research explores other avenues down which digital advice could proceed which may be somewhat less likely to occur—but they will clearly be troubling for traditional advisers to contemplate. In one case, digital is king, and human advice has fallen by the wayside, except as a luxury service for high-net worth individuals.

The full analysis, “Future of Digital Financial Advcie,” is available for download here