One of the great comic scenes in early television starts with Lucy and her best pal Ethel, of “I Love Lucy,” wrapping chocolates on a production line. “If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, you’re fired!” threatens the supervisor.
All goes well until the conveyor belt picks up speed. Within moments the hapless duo realize they can’t keep up. In a panic they grab the chocolates whisking by and stuff them madly into their mouths, caps and blouses just before the supervisor returns. “You’re doing splendidly,” she says, and hollers off camera, “Speed it up a little!”
Life in the financial lane has been a lot like that lately. Among the new developments zooming toward independent advisors are enhanced services from deep-pocketed competitors: Schwab Private Client, Merrill Clear, Merrill Edge and Vanguard (full service for 0.3%!). In the first quarter of this year, Fidelity Investments announced the acquisition of eMoney Advisor, followed by Schwab’s rollout of Intelligent Portfolios. Meanwhile, robo-advisors like Wealthfront, Betterment and FutureAdvisor have marched across the Internet like a zombie apocalypse.
These changes represent a threat to a business model that many financial advisors feel comfortable with and profit from. It’s human nature to wonder, “Is this the end of a golden era? Have I staked my career on buggy whips?”
Note, however, that while cutting back on retail locations, JPMorgan Chase plans to add more offices over the next two years for advisory and wealth management services. After studying the challenges of this brave new world, Jamie Dimon clearly has no plans to give in to the robos or expanded asset management firms. Nor should motivated advisors.
However, the key question in developing a strategy to deal with accelerating change isn’t really “What am I going to do?” It’s “Why am I here?”
‘Why Are They Calling You?’
“One of the first things we do [in a new relationship] is get to the ‘why.’ We ask, ‘If someone is calling your organization in five years, why are they calling you?’” Tyler Sweatt said.
Sweatt is corporate development director at Toffler Associates in Reston, Virginia, a strategic advisory firm that has built a business around helping organizations deal with change and disruption. Founded 18 years ago by futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, authors of the ground-breaking books “Future Shock,” “Powershift” and “The Third Wave,” the privately held consultancy focuses on analyzing problems and formulating recommendations for clients in a wide range of industries. One factor is common to them all: “The volume and velocity of information is phenomenal,” Sweatt said. “Everything is real-time now.”
Toffler himself suggested 45 years ago in “Future Shock” that technology was both a cause and an enabler of this “roaring current of change,” allowing multiple quantum leaps to occur at the same time. He surmised that people fall into one of four camps depending on the way they respond to high-speed change:
The Denier blocks out reality until it comes crashing down in a catastrophic life crisis. (“Young people are always acting up. It’s nothing to worry about.”)
The Specialist stays up to date in her own field, but is clueless about the bigger picture. (“Why are people so upset about a few whooping cranes?”)
The Reversionist wants to go back to obsolete decisions and habits. (“We should all live in communes.”)
The Super-Simplifier focuses on a single basic idea to explain current change. (“It’s those Republicans/Democrats.”)
Technology and Trust
The speed of technological innovation means both disruption and opportunity for many of Toffler Associates’ clients. However, it’s not the most significant factor in shaping the future. “We’ve found that the most important aspect in the loop is the human,” Sweatt said. “It isn’t that technology is bad. With younger generations, we see their fondness for technology all the time. But sometimes you just need to look somebody in the eye.”
He pointed out that a purely robo-advisory relationship commoditizes investment management. “The generational forces behind new technology are coming from your future clients. But what’s being lost is a true, tangible relationship in which there is real trust. When I’m assessing a potential investment or large opportunity, I can count only a few people I trust enough to call them up and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”
That, Sweatt said, is where human advisors have an edge. “At Toffler Associates, we believe a tool is only as good as the person employing it,” he observed. “Technology can only enable a goal if you know what the client wants to achieve.”
In his view, advisors of tomorrow will combine the efficiencies of tech with the power of personal relationships. “Use the emotional desire for human connectivity to your advantage,” he urged. “If people feel comfortable with you, they will stay with you over the longer term. They will call you because they trust you and know you can provide advice to support their life goals.”
Your current and prospective clients do know how you’re different from a robo-advisor or a big-brand asset manager, after all. Don’t they?
Why Are You Here?
Advisors’ value propositions are often generic—something along the lines of “We provide comprehensive wealth management tailored to your needs,” as Pershing Advisor Solutions’ Mark Tibergien suggested in his March column for Investment Advisor, “Why Do You Exist?”
Can you explain why your business exists? What is it you offer that a prospective client couldn’t find at a firm that’s bigger, nearer or cheaper? “If you don’t know why you do what you do,” Tibergien asked, “how will your clients?”
For example, do prospective clients understand the difference between your fiduciary responsibility and the less rigorous suitability standard required of a bank or brokerage investment rep? Do they know that they can expect customized advice from you, not an impersonal “one from Column A, two from Column B” download?
Ditch the generic description and try to specify the distinctive value you offer. As Toffler Associates’ Sweatt suggested, “You may want to reposition yourself in the value chain as someone who reduces client stress, provides peace of mind, looks at solutions in a portfolio or serves as a life coach. In any case, you need to know why you exist. Without that, you can’t develop a strategic plan.”
The value proposition you determine can become part of your firm’s DNA—something you work to strengthen over the long term, instead of creating a different marketing message whenever a new competitor comes down the pike.
Balancing High-Tech and High-Touch
The difficulty of dealing with change also concerns Kim Dellarocca, managing director of Pershing LLC in Boston. Recognizing that today’s advisors are confronted with the challenges of different demographics, a shrinking pool of accounts, morphing business models, new economic drivers and more complex client needs, she sees them responding in one of two ways.
Some feel stressed and overwhelmed by the urgency of responding to new needs and regulatory requirements on top of day-to-day business management. Others, she said, see the changes as a big opportunity and want to know, “How do I leverage all these developments to my advantage?”
In spite of all this change, Dellarocca added, we have enough history as a society to know that the fundamentals stay the same. “Even though millennials are quick to say they want digital,” she observed, “once their assets reach $100,000 or $250,000, they have a parent to care for or someone else’s money to manage, they want a real person. The human aspect never stops being important.”
The often-used analogy between physical and financial health is a valid one. When you’re young with no serious medical concerns, the nearest clinic may be fine for treating the occasional ache or pain. When you realize that good health can’t be taken for granted, though, you’re more likely to value having a personal relationship with a medical advisor you know and trust, and whose knowledge and experience you can rely on.
Dellarocca suggested that advisors who are ambivalent about adapting to change first consider it from a positive standpoint: “How can a digital office benefit my business?”
Improved technology “isn’t just a matter of attracting millennials, but of offering more choice to clients and prospects,” she said. For example, how many full-service clients really want to sit down with you for a review every quarter? Whether retired or working, they’re short on time. Many—perhaps most—would rather be offered a quick, accurate online update. Can your technology do that?