PANC 2016: Technology – Practical Solutions and Usage

If you had to guess, would you say that mobile applications or desktop web portals are top of mind for plan sponsor clients right now?

According to audience members polled during a tech-focused session at the 2016 PLANADVISER National Conference in Orlando, Florida, the clear standout in terms of plan sponsors’ technology demands is “plan sponsor and participant websites.”

Moderator James Sampson, managing principal with Cornerstone Retirement Advisors, followed up with a second flash-poll: “What is the next technological advancement you are implementing or considering for your practice?”

Again there was a clear standout, with the majority focused on financial wellness programs, as well as workflow and database management and mobile enrollment.

Peter Kapinos, vice president and head of client engagement for Empower Retirement, said he was a little surprised to see interest in new desktop websites outstrip mobile applications, “but in a way this actually makes sense.”

“What I mean is that even as we are building powerful desktop websites, we have to think about mobile-first design,” Kapinos suggested. “If we know the average individual is working off of their phone first, if we want them to take action, obviously considering the smart phone first is key.”

Steven Glasgow, senior vice president and financial adviser with Avondale Partners, agreed with that sentiment. He noted that plan sponsors want very in-depth and powerful websites that will bring customizable and flexible planning tools down to the participant level.

“Advisers will know that even the best websites will only see engagement from a segment of the population that truly is already engaged in retirement planning and cares about their account,” Glasgow said. “In that sense we often think of mobile technology as the gateway to the deeper relationship.”

Both suggested a sensible technology strategy, at a very high level, might be to have a simplified mobile application that will allow participants to do a select number of things related to setting up an account for the first time, along with perhaps a few basic maintenance functions. As Glasgow explained, until a participant is truly engaged, anything more than a few clicks or steps on the mobile app is going to turn them away.

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Glasgow went on to suggest that “our increasing ability to draw data out of the recordkeeping websites and interfaces is a game changer. We can go into meetings today and talk about what’s relevant to the specific plan sponsor, drilling deep into clear demographic and financial information about their actual participants. All that stuff we used to have to guess at, we can now have the hard data very quickly.”

Kapinos echoed the thought, noting “what we can measure in our digital world is truly impressive. While paper forms and enrollment kits serve a purpose, the technological driven world makes things much more powerful and efficient.”

Following another polling question from Sampson, about half of the advisers in the audience indicated they are currently using iPads or other tablet technology in their employee meetings.

“Since moving from paper quarterly meetings about a year ago, every comment we have gotten from clients has been very positive,” Glasgow said. “You get to control what they’re looking at and what they’re focused on as you both lean in. And we kill less trees and use less ink. We have really viewed it as a win-win.”

Looking ahead to the next few years of industry development, both panelists said they hope to see more unification of industry technology.

“For example, we are working on a program that you could call a robo-app, which we want to be able to lay on top of any recordkeeping system,” Glasgow explained. “The goal is to eventually piggyback on the technology and other apps that already exist in the space, to allow us to really seamlessly leverage the data of other providers, and to share our own. I don’t know if we’ll get there any time soon, to be frank, but that’s where we want to go.”

Kapinos agreed, concluding that “the digital experience will not ever replace the true experience of sitting down with an adviser. Instead, it will be the hub around which we can build and maintain the client relationship, all the more efficiently and effectively.”