I’ve sat in those rooms, and you have too. You know the ones, where some war-weary veteran of the good old days of financial services talks about how they used to walk uphill both ways in a blizzard to every client meeting.
How the account application was as small as a postcard. How they didn’t even have calculators and surmised rates of return on the back of a napkin.
We are all told that a return to such days would be a good thing for clients and advisors alike and that all of this technology “stuff” is simply ruining a business that at its core is about helping people save for their future, not do calculus.
But those are not the only rooms.
I have also sat in the rooms, as you may have as well, where a man with a bun on the top of his head, ironic facial hair, a skin-tight suit with no tie on and sneakers remind us all that the dark ages are over. That investors can get everything they need from a website, and the age of artificial intelligence (“AI”) will launch us into a conflict-of-interest free panacea of robo-advice.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize: they’re both right. And—in their own way—they’re both wrong. The merger of financial services and fintech, I believe, should release a revolution no one would have expected – what I have come to call “The Rise of the Humans.”
As an industry, we desperately need human advisors to focus on the human aspects of the job.
We need them to abandon the machine work which has become such a distraction. Endless spreadsheets and formulas, workarounds and piles and piles of printed PDFs.
We need them to stop training their clients to use their administrators as the best way to get up-to-date information (this is a recipe for potential errors), and we need them to stop answering calculus questions like “Can I retire at age 65?” with computation solutions – “Let’s just take your cost of living today and inflate it by 3.5 percent over 20 years…”
Oftentimes, smart advisors use less than superior tools to do their darndest to serve their clients and in the meantime have lost human connection. Instead, they are buried in paperwork requests, beneficiary changes, balance look-ups and status updates. What have our attempts at machine precision cost us in human connection? Too much.
It is time to alter our expectations of financial advisors. We primarily need to expect them to act in human, not machine ways, and in doing so more than earn their fee. What are the human things advisors do?
1. They pay attention.
No computer can look you in the eye and let you know that your most critical financial secrets are being heard without judgment.
2. They have interpretive wisdom.
Advisors can listen to your stories.
What you learned from your parents about money, how you lost your shirt in a business deal with a friend or the joy that you felt when you paid the down payment on your first house. They can help you discover what these moments mean for your long-term decision engine and all your financial decisions going forward.
3. They can have a conversation.
A computer can transcribe every word you say, but it cannot hear you. It cannot respond with the kind of question that only years of experience could know.
It takes an advisor for finances to be liberated by the power of safe relationships.
4. They offer empathy.
Maybe we haven’t been exactly where you are, but human advisors can imagine what it’s like to be in your shoes. We can feel the anxiety of an unknown future or the hope of a long-sought-after goal.
We can offer that deeply human and story-sensitive intelligence that no AI can provide.
A computer can do calculus for you, but it cannot derive meaning. It cannot help you count the emotional and personal cost of putting a spouse into a care facility, or not being able to pay for the last year of your daughter’s college, or getting laid off three years before you were ready.
Sherry Turkle, in her timely and important book, Reclaiming Conversation, extols the power of human intelligence this way, “Intelligence once meant more than any artificial intelligence does.
It used to include sensibility, sensitivity, awareness, discernment, reason, acumen and wit.” If the new age of advice was going to be anything it must be this.
Wasn’t this what we really wanted the word fiduciary to mean? Not a word defined by lawyers and regulatory code, but a word that captured the best of our industry: one person deeply caring for the financial concerns and aspirations of another.
But it is not enough to want this for our human advisors or for our clients. We must use machines to do what they do best so that advisors can spend the best hours of the day doing what they do best.
Let the machines provide speed, accuracy, integrated information, immediate access, platform agnosticism and predictive power. Let them ferret away in the dirt doing the menial work of financial calculus, while advisors are free to rise to face their clients.
Along the way, I believe our technology should do four things for advisors, their associates and their firms:
1. Automate: Technology should automate activities best handled digitally rather than personally.
2. Record: Technology should make it incredibly easy to keep reliable records of client activity and communication AND organize those records in a way that is searchable and reportable.
3. Protect: Technology should protect advisors and their firms from the liability caused by memory-dependence and limited data judgment calls.
4. Liberate: Technology should liberate advisors to focus on what only personal relationships can do, while simultaneously supporting those relationships with connectivity, shared data and tools for communication.
In the end, the financial services industry is today better equipped to do what it has always set out to do. We are the human advocate for our client’s decision-making over time.
Advocacy is a uniquely human experience. When we see our work in this industry through that lens, we have nothing to fear in the rise of fintech. Technology – even at its most robust – is only a rising platform on which we stand.
When I imagine an advisor-client interface at its best, maybe there’s an iPad in the room where the client’s information is being gathered. Maybe there’s an OLED screen television with charts and graphs showing the client’s potential futures.
Maybe the whole thing is happening over ultra-HD video conferencing. All of that’s possible and maybe eventually required.
But regardless of what machines are in the room, one person hearing another person tell their story and helping them take that story to its best possible end is what matters. Because in the words of David Augsburger, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
Our AI may be able to listen in, but it can never truly hear all that’s being said. And this is how we rise.