No matter where you sit, technology is a major part of our lives, both personal and professional. The decisions about what we use and how we use it varies widely, but more and more financial advisors recognize how critical it is to their business. Making choices about what platforms to use and which solutions to purchase however can be daunting.
While advisors view technology as a way to make their practices more efficient and profitable, they acknowledge that their clients are the prime beneficiaries of any technology improvements. According to research conducted in 2018 by InvestmentNews for the special report Digital DNA 2.0: How Advisors Can Maximize Trends in Advisory Technology, advisors say the top benefits they seek to achieve when adding more technology are improved client-facing service and interactions and more efficient and impactful reporting.
According to additional research conducted by IN Research and powered by Crain IQ in 2017, and summarized in the special report An Advisor’s Guide to Understanding Investors’ Digital DNA, account aggregation ranks highest among investors when asked to rate a selection of online account features in terms of “making saving easier and improving overall experience with the provider.” In this report, advisors also ranked account aggregation highest when asked “which online account features improve their overall experience with their clients.”
Sometimes, there seems to be a disconnect between what advisors think is their most valuable technology and what clients value most. In the 2019 T3/Inside Information advisor technology survey, for instance, advisors placed little value on front-office tools (e.g., account aggregation, risk tolerance and document management), focusing more on CRM as their most valuable business software. Account aggregation was not even a choice on that survey.
Of course, business models and sentiment vary among advisors, but for those who are in the forefront of technology investment – sometimes dubbed the “Tech Accelerators” – the top consideration is “improved outcome for clients.” Importantly, these Accelerators are investing more in technology and they are growing faster than those who are not. Furthermore, when examining the technology stacks of Accelerators compared with other advisors, there is a clear separation in the use of client portals (77% vs 56%, according to the Digital DNA 2.0 report). The Accelerators are committed to leveraging more client-facing tools to provide improved services and delivery of advice to their clients.
Not all firms can or want to be Tech Accelerators, but they would do well to think about what technology they need in order to stay profitable – and what the value of any technology investments will be to their clients. This is a shift from thinking about forcing software into how they are currently doing things. That holdover mindset also has advisors considering technology investments as a cost/benefit analysis in terms of productivity and efficiency.
And then there is the critical issue of adoption. Too many advisors purchase software solutions only to find that it is underutilized. It is not uncommon to hear advisors say that they only use a fraction of the capabilities available in an expensive technology investment.
To complicate things, advisors are experiencing margin compression like never before. All firms are being hit with changing consumer demands (more, better and digital coupled with price sensitivity) and increased costs for compliance/regulatory issues. Every dollar spent on unused or needless/redundant technology only adds to the negative equation. In addition, there is a very real possibility that advisors who are paying for expensive or cumbersome legacy systems will be hard pressed to weather the storm should another significant market correction occur – especially those who work under an AUM model.
NOW IS THE TIME TO REASSESS AND THINK AHEAD
The time to trim expenses and think ahead about these very serious threats is now. Here are three tips to help advisors navigate this complicated landscape:
1. CLOSE THE DIGITAL DIVIDE WITH YOUR CLIENTS
There is a gap, or digital divide, between individuals’ frequent use of technology in their lives generally and their relatively infrequent use of technology in their financial lives. The good news is that demand for advice is strong, whether it is delivered through human, digital or hybrid channels. The majority of individuals surveyed in the 2017 Digital DNA survey say they value – and need — some form of professional financial advice. In short, significant opportunities exist for advisors who make access to advice easier.
Advisors are missing an opportunity to appear at the fingertips of their clients and potential new clients. With 93% of individuals indicating they are engaged with social media at least weekly, it is surprising to see that only 25% of advisors said they interact with their clients via social media, 14% with webinars or recorded videos, and 12% with blog posts. Many advisors think that their 55-64 year-old clients are not using Internet for financial things – or not using the Internet much at all. But research in the initial Digital DNA report shows that the demographic spends on average more than five hours per day online.
In practical terms, this means advisors need to consolidate, communicate and customize. Creating the optimal digital client experience involves aggregating client data, communicating the value and usefulness of that information to the client, and making sure the delivery of that information is done in a way that suits the client’s needs and preferences. Taking these steps can close the digital divide.
2. REVISIT YOUR BUSINESS PROCESSES / CLIENT EXPERIENCE
Delivering financial planning and investment management services is a process-driven business and many advisors build their tech stacks based on the processes they use to scale their practices. This is necessary, of course, but all too often, the workflow is exclusively based on how the advisor wants the business to run, and the technology is selected to facilitate that and that alone. Typically, it’s about scalability, client segmentation and other considerations that help ensure efficiency.
What if the advisor started the process analysis with the client and the client journey(s), rather than on what the firm needs to deliver in order to scale and efficiently grow? That would help to shift the focus from good service to a truly meaningful experience.
Investors choose advisors based on one or more of the following reasons:
With virtually all client demographics reporting consistent online activity and client expectations set, to a large extent, by experiences with consumer businesses such as Amazon and Uber, now would be a good time to reevaluate your technology with this in mind. If you took a good hard look at your firm’s client experience (better yet, survey your clients to determine what they really want in the way of their own unique client experience), would you, for instance, admit to the fact that your firm is actually delivering something cookie-cutter, clunky and/or annoying to your clients? More importantly, would you make changes in your technology and workflows to improve all that?
3. THINK “FLEXIBILITY” WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR TECH STACK
Think about these questions for a few minutes: Do you know precisely where your business will be in 5-7 years? Do you have any idea where consumer technology will be in that time frame? Does anybody?
The point is, change is constant and happens at an ever-increasing pace. Maintaining flexibility, especially when it comes to technology, is extremely important to your ability to be nimble and respond to changing client needs and demands. You don’t want to be locked in to long-term contracts and therefore at the mercy of the tech providers’ future plans.
Think of your tech stack like a stack of pancakes. Now ask yourself: Do I have the right technology, not just for today but as the future evolves? Is it easy enough to use so that my team and I are getting the benefit of all the bells and whistles? Do we even need all the features? How can we lift up and pull out that “middle pancake” without creating a big mess? Are there free or low-cost solutions that might provide the benefits we need – and how can we pull those solutions in as part of our unique client experience and potentially create a shorter and healthier stack?
The point here is, the measure of whether you are a savvy consumer of financial technology is not how much you spend on it, but how well you leverage it to better serve your clients (and thus your business.) In addition, the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” may no longer be true.
With digital tools becoming ubiquitous in all aspects of everyday life, and with investors of all ages increasing their reliance on these tools, their use in the advisory business must keep pace. Simple steps to improve technology, such as aggregating account data and customizing client communication, can provide a more relevant and seamless digital experience. Advisory firms that adopt and promote user-friendly digital interfaces and services will be the ones who gain market share and prosper in the years ahead.