Robo Advice A Rising Tide?

Industry researchers now commonly argue digital portfolio management tools and robo-adviser platforms are driving greater opportunity for traditional advice firms. 

A new report from Cerulli Associates argues that the increase in the availability of digital financial planning tools helps investors explore their financial options, essentially grooming them for more traditional forms of in-person, relationship-based advice further down the road.

Digital advice, in other words, is not a zero-sum game, explains Scott Smith, director at Cerulli. “While technology innovations will transform how services are delivered, there will be an ongoing, and potentially increasing, demand for personalized financial advice delivered by humans,” Smith says.

Astute observers can already see this theme playing out on the institutional retirement planning stage—for example, in the recently announced acquisition of The Mutual Fund Store, a traditional brick-and-mortar advisory, by robo-advice trendsetter Financial Engines. This is just the latest example of robo and traditional advising coming together to form new hybrid and complementary approaches, following several years of vigorous tech-driven merger and acquisition activity across different silos of the advising industry.

Explaining that latest deal, Financial Engines President and CEO Lawrence (Larry) Raffone, points to proprietary research that shows even those who are deeply interested in using robo-advisers would value access to in-person advice for certain situations and circumstances. Cerulli’s assessment is right in line with these findings, Smith says.

“Many industry stakeholders assume that ongoing advances in digital advice platforms will empower investors to handle their financial affairs without the assistance of traditional financial advisers,” Smith continues. “Cerulli believes that while technology innovations will transform how services are delivered, there will be an ongoing, and potentially increasing, demand for personalized financial advice delivered by humans.”

NEXT: Robo is a catalyst 

Cerulli believes the growth of digital advice platforms “is exactly the catalyst needed to accelerate the development of traditional advice providers to serve their clients moving forward.” As the report explains, forward-thinking advice provider firms will use technology to allow their human advisers to focus more of their time and effort on their most valuable activities.

“Firms that publicly champion themselves as advocates of fiduciary advice will gain market share,” Smith adds.

In this environment, Cerulli predicts providers that can better help investors understand their own capacity to take on investment risk over a long horizon should be able to substantially improve their clients’ outcomes—and by extension the performance of the business. “Through interactive media and other technologies, providers can begin building personalized relationships at an early age, when investors are more likely to agree that firms are looking out for their best interest,” the report finds.

The Cerulli research goes on to argue robo-advising can be a great way to introduce a client to a new firm—presenting a lower cost option for a potential client to get their feet wet, as it were. “Firms offering a digital advice solution afford clients another avenue to familiarize themselves with the value of the firm through cost-effective means,” Cerulli explains.

The report concludes that allowing clients the flexibility to dictate the contact channel that is most convenient to them increases satisfaction levels. Additionally, “firms that can clearly articulate both fee structures and the value of their services when engaging clients can increase a client’s willingness to pay fees,” Cerulli says.

Information about how to obtain Cerulli research, including “U.S. Retail and Investor Advice 2015: Aligning with Investor Goals,” is available here