Amid growing commoditization of investment management services, bank advisors are searching for ways to stay relevant.

That was a common theme that popped up repeatedly at Raymond James' Financial Institutions Division Symposium in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Feb. 9 – 11.  

Speakers urged advisors to connect with clients on a personal level to set themselves apart from automated or "robo" advisors. In addition, speakers addressed a variety of other topics, from the outlook for the economy to succession planning and recruiting.  Here are some of the more notable things we heard.  

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Equity Rally Still Has Legs

"This [equity] rally is going to continue to run," said Milton Ezrati, senior economist and market strategist at Lord Abbett. 

Ezrati cited equity valuations and the expected continued growth of the U.S. economy as reasons for his upbeat outlook for the U.S. equity market.  "The market is not as drop-dead gorgeous as it was last year or the year before or the year before that, but that doesn't mean it's not attractive," he said.  

Get Customers to Open Up

Connecting with clients about life issues, such as problems that come with growing old, is one way advisors can set themselves apart and fend off competition from robo advisors that provide asset allocation and portfolio rebalancing at a very low cost, said Frank McAleer, director of Raymond James' Retirement Solutions.

McAleer encouraged advisors to help clients address the physical and mental hurdles of old age, urging them to talk to their clients about housing, transportation and healthcare, the three top issues for many seniors and their families. "No robo can sit and have a conversation about this," McAleer said.  

Talk About the Right Things

Carl Richards, director of Investor Education at BAM Alliance, urged advisors to talk to clients about what makes money important to them. Talk to them about reaching their financial goals, he said, rather than beating an index.

Using his signature Venn diagrams, Richards (aka "the Sketch Guy") drew two circles, one representing "your money" and that other "your life."  The intersection of the two, he said, represents "real advice," the place where advisors can compete against robots. As long as you display empathy and trust, he said, "there will always be a job for you."  

Partner With the Bankers

Steve Kruchten, president of Bremer Investment Services, the brokerage unit of Bremer Bank, is staying ahead of the competition by partnering with the institution's bankers to target mass-affluent customers with $250,000 to $1 million in investable assets.

Kruchten is pushing his advisors to meet with bankers and to conduct joint banker-advisor annual reviews with clients. He asks that advisors create a joint meeting agenda to show to "their bank partners that they are detailed and do follow a process," Kruchten said.  "A joint meeting agenda is our chance to start to uncover for deposits, credit, insurance and all the other things that our bank is looking to make revenue on," he said.

Nothing to Fear From Robos

Robo advisors will never be able to replicate what real advisors do and therefore don't pose a serious threat to the business, said John Houston (left), managing director of Raymond James' Financial Institutions Division. "Until a computer can show empathy and read the expression on a client's face when discussing critical life issues with them, I'm not too worried," he said.