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Are You in Denial About the Robo Threat?

By Thomas Coyle January 20, 2017

If you could set the clock back about 18 years, marketing consultant Marti Barletta figures you could find plenty of brick-and-mortar tourist agents convinced the online travel-booking business didn’t threaten them.

“They were probably saying, ‘Customers want to come into my storefront office, shake my hand and look at brochures while I use the computer to find their flights,’” says Barletta, who is based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Of course most of these optimists were wrong. Consumers in fact preferred cheaper, do-it-yourself internet services such as Expedia to dealing with flesh-and-blood agents, however appealing their personalities and office spaces.

And now most of these optimists are long out of business.

Barletta thinks financial advisors may be in a similar state of denial today about “robos.” She says these online platforms, along with ETFs, have compressed demand for investment management, which is the first thing most FAs tout.

In response, however, many advisors say clients value the human touch or need real people to understand the nuances of their financial lives and guide them accordingly.

“But they’re wrong,” says Barletta. “Very few industries require people to come to their offices now. It’s just not in the spirit of customer service.”

The marketing expert is hardly alone in thinking the wealth-advice industry is under pressure from robos, which measure investors’ risk tolerances and provide passive portfolios for them. But she’s in rarer company for linking the threat to other significant challenges.

Barletta thinks advisors are “completely misaligned” with changing client expectations.

Marti Barletta

Younger clients want more transparency about what they’re getting and paying for and they want some degree of on-demand, channel-agnostic access to their financial information, she says. And there are increasing signs — most recently from U.K. market researcher Investment Trends — that older investors aren’t far behind their children and grandchildren in terms of expectations and new-tech adoption.

Add to these inflections the possibly of a sharp stock-market downturn — there hasn’t been one in over eight years — and you have the elements of an industry-shattering “catastrophe,” according to Barletta.

“Any one of these factors can break a market,” says Barletta. “Three at once is a perfect storm.”

Adds Barletta: “If I saw this scenario playing out in any market, I’d say half the firms would be out of business in three years.”

To fight back, advisors have to get their heads straight. “They have to stop thinking it’s all about the personal touch and being liked and trusted — it’s not,” says Barletta. “Most people are looking for services delivered on their terms.”

David Root, who heads D.B. Root and Company in Pittsburgh, thinks there’s a middle way to survive in a fast-changing marketplace.

On one hand, he’s certain client expectations are changing, and that a growing taste for cheaper robo-driven service delivery will displace many brick-and-mortar FAs.

For instance, Root believes “the mobile-phone app will replace much of what FAs have done for years.”

But Root also holds that there will always be room for hybrids of a new sort — thanks partly to the advent of younger advisors who embrace new tools while understanding when and how the human touch can be vital.

“It comes down to a willingness to use technology to our advantage instead of fighting it,” says Root, whose firm manages about $650 million. “To me, the best practice of the future will be a harmonious marriage between a trusted advisor and a robo.”

The human advisor can’t be left out of the equation altogether, says Root, because machines can’t provide the assurance and judgment clients need at certain points in their financial lives.

“In that sense, it’s like medicine,” says Root, many of whose clients are physicians. “I can’t imagine never having a doctor because I can’t imagine trusting my healthcare to a program.”