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How Advisors Can Be the Next Disruptors

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Click to enlarge: 5 Levels of Tool Utilization. Source: ActiFiFinancial advisors needn’t fear the ravages of disruptive technology. They can grab the bull by the horns and ride it themselves.

That may be the overriding message of experts in advisor technology, including Spencer Segal and Eric Poirier, speaking at MarketCounsel’s annual conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Jud Bergman, CEO of Envestnet—itself an early disruptor in the advisory space — captured this idea using bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell’s vivid metaphor of the young David slaying the giant Goliath as the essence of what disruption is about.

Entrepreneurs, be they Silicon Valley startups seeking to unseat established players or independent advisors seeking to attract assets from wirehouses, are all in the business of giant-slaying.

What the slingshot-bearing David understood is that, to quote Gladwell from his book “David and Goliath:”

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”

Goliath’s large size may have been the result of a pituitary disorder that affected his vision, enabling the nimble David to get a shot at the Israelite-taunting Philistine.

“The mighty warrior can be taken on by a simple shepherd who has courage and faith,” says Bergman.

A modern-day example of this disruptive dynamic is the brave Steve Jobs’ assault on the mighty Microsoft.

Bergman quotes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer putting it this way in 2007:

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

At the time of that quote, Bergman hastens to point out, Microsoft was the most highly valued tech company; today’s most highly valued firm, in any sector, is the purveyor of that disruptive iPhone, Apple.

In today’s advisory world, he continues, “one of the Goliaths is the wirehouses; we established Envestnet to enable the independent to compete against the wirehouses.”

Having long been at the game of evening the playing field between institutional firms and small independents, what Bergman sees disruptive advisors doing today is “leveraging technology to unify disparate applications.”

Citing an Aite group study, the Envestnet CEO says advisors who use integrated solutions spend 40% less time doing back-office work, thus raising productivity and profitability.

Today’s frontier opportunity, he continues, lies in capturing the business of millennials.

“Traditional wealth management firms are failing to meet the digital needs of these clients,” he says, citing data that 40% to 60% of them want direct contact with clients but want it “monitor to monitor.” Fewer than 20% of traditional firms respond to this demand.

Bergman thus sees opportunity for tech-savvy younger advisors — he notes that there are more advisors today in their 60s than in their 30s, incredibly — for whom technology is not “disintermediating” (think robo-advisory firms) but “re-intermediating” the advisor.

How to re-intermediate the advisor was the implicit theme of another advisor technology veteran, Spenser Segal of ActiFi, which makes practice management software designed for advisory practices.

While a character in the late-’60s classic movie “The Graduate” conveyed his vital message to the film’s protagonist in a single memorable word, “Plastics,” Segal used geek-speak to convey what he thinks will be most disruptive in today’s advisory world:

“Cross-application workflow automation.”

“I know it’s a mouthful,” Segal acknowledged, “but you can’t be a bionic advisor if your tools don’t support you.”

And indeed, too often organizational barriers hold back firms from getting adequate support. The complaint Segal hears the most is that a firm will acquire CRM or financial planning software but fail to leverage it within the firm’s organization.

Segal illustrated the problem with a nifty cartoon showing five levels of utilization of a firm’s advisor technology.

Level 1 is where staff member Joe merely utilizes the knowledge that’s in his head.

“How consistent is that?” asks Segal, who then answers:. “You talk to different people, you get different answers.”

A more sophisticated approach—and indeed the hardest of the five levels—is achieve organizational alignment, through a checklist or operations manual.

“Forget the 10,000 foot-view,” Segal says. “All execution takes place at the 6 feet and under level” (presumably there not very tall people in his office.)

So, for example, “when we onboard clients, these are the things that have to happen,” he says, adding that “massive behavioral change is required in aligning practices.”

Level 3 involves embedding the desired policy and procedures in a workflow engine that keeps staffers on track.

Segal acknowledges that it is less efficient to go into a CRM and check that a task has been completed than to simply check off one’s paper-based checklist. The latter may take 2 seconds vs. 10 or 12 seconds for the former, thereby minimally quintupling the effort involved.

But he argued the CRM approach is the only way to “build scale…in a margin compression environment” and to professionalize a practice through documentation and record-keeping procedures.

The CRM’s virtues of repeatability and consistency can now be harnessed for purposes of automation and customization at Level 4, where the all that data input into the system enables office staff to define client segments.

So, for example, if a chart- and table-loving engineer client wants multiple paper reports slicing and dicing his portfolio but Granny wants just a single page, the firm’s staff can use the software to give each client what he or she wants in a single click.

At Level 4, the firm is now gaining tremendous efficiency from the technology, but it’s at Level 5 that the CRM system gives the advisor “bionic” leverage. That’s where the CRM system performs multiple operations that would, without the software, consume an enormous amount of time.

For example, in preparation for a client meeting, the CRM system would — five days prior — grab all current financial data for the client and tell the planning system to run projections on confidence as to whether the client is on track to meeting his objectives.

If the client were at, say an 85% or lower level of confidence, the system would push out certain workflows designed to provide options for the client to get back on track, and would arrive at a different set of workflows for a client who was on track.

That is what Segal calls “cross-application workflow automation,” and he says the new trend is disruptive because it will cut the time it would take an advisor to produce outstanding service by 99%.

Moving from 50 clicks to one is also the essence of what Addepar, a relatively new advisor technology firm founded in 2009, is seeking to do for RIAs, family offices and wealth managers.

The Silicon Valley-based firm’s CEO Eric Poirier, a computer scientist by training, told  attendees that the massive change we’ve seen all the way from Netscape to the iPhone will be dwarfed in the next 10 years and “transform the way we give financial advice.”

Adapting to younger clients’ paperless preferences, Addepar is seeking to provide advisors with tools enabling clients to “self-serve.”

Poirier in particular addressed the way Addepar’s portfolio reporting platform aggregates data in such a way that enables a holistic view of a portfolio with disparate sources, for example alternative investments whose cost basis and dividend payments may look very different from more standard investments.

By thusly solving “the data problem,” Addepar’s engineer-heavy staff is “helping [advisors] treat clients like individuals again; we’re rethinking everything from client’s perspective,” he said.

“When you’re managing your relationship with the client, you don’t want to worry about back-office tasks,” he added.

In introductory remarks, Jamie McIntyre, co-founder of pathbreaking Fortigent advisory firm and currently involved in Rewire Capital, which seeks to provide angel investing opportunities to high-net-worth investors, noted that 1996 was a key point of disruption in the advisory business.

It was then that Charles Schwab offered online trading for the first time. “That changed the definition of what a stock broker did. When investors realized they didn’t need access to a person to trade,” he said.

The next disruption he foresaw would involve the ability to provide clients with what they currently want: “to just be able to pick up their phone and track their finances.”

Whether that will further disintermediate or re-intermediate the advisor remains to be seen, and may ride on what Bergman, Segal and Poirier come up with next.

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