Despite fears of a tech-led revolution, automated advice and natural-language artificial intelligence are not yet ready to eclipse traditional advisors. Indeed, they may never be ready.

Instead, these tech innovations are actually helping advisors. Major advances across the financial planner’s toolkit are making these tools more efficient. Vast improvements also allow advisors to build broader and deeper relationships with clients, and justify their fees.

“We recently purchased Social Security analysis software [that] is very robust and goes much deeper into planning around when to take Social Security,” says one advisor at a national RIA, a respondent in this year’s exclusive Financial Planning Tech Survey. “It’s not cheap, but has helped us close $15 million in business over the last year.”

THE POWER TO TRANSFORM
So which technologies offer the most promise? Which have the most power to be transformative?

Slideshow
Tech Survey results: Top vendors and more
To compete with digital platforms, advisors are utilizing technology that makes them more efficient and delivers deeper insights.

To see more insights from our annual survey, please see our interactive graphic: Tech Survey: The forces reshaping wealth management

In our study of roughly 1,000 advisors — from independent RIAs to planners affiliated with a broker-dealer to other types of advisors — we learned some surprising and counterintuitive ideas about the tools of the present and the future. Together, they provide a road map for the years to come.

We were struck by the responses when we asked about the technologies advisors believe will change the wealth management industry over the next one to three years.

Automated advice platforms jumped to near the top of their list, and artificial intelligence and virtual reality figured prominently.

Then there was a surprising split. Smaller practices — those that have less than $100 million in assets under management — put behavioral finance and advanced risk-profiling software higher in their ranking of transformative technologies than did their larger peers.

While wealth management firms of all sizes are trying to streamline their operations to benefit clients — mobile is a prime example — smaller firms especially are focused on ways to enhance the human element and provide smarter, better and more sophisticated advice.

Risk-profiling software “changed the way we talk to clients about risk, and enabled better conversations,” says an advisor at an RIA firm.

And while many advisors are not focused on the mass-market business for which robo advice is designed, they are reporting tech success in other areas.

Rolling out technologies that achieve incremental but meaningful improvements in client platforms and presentations is one.

Additionally, better technology is helping advisors win clients’ confidence that their data and communications are secure.

ROBO TRANSFORMATION
Among advisors at large firms — those with more than $500 million in assets under management — 44% say that robo advice is poised to transform wealth management in the next few years. Those who have deployed robo solutions say it has helped them reach younger clients with low-balance accounts.

Schwab’s offering “is useful with small accounts that we don’t want to manage,” says an advisor at a dually registered RIA affiliated with a broker-dealer.

HAVE IT, DON’T USE IT
Overall deployment is low so far, however, with only 23% of advisors at large firms reporting they use robo tools. Among firms of all sizes, just 18% of advisors says they’ve adopted a robo solution.

At small practices, 41% of advisors say behavioral finance software is set to change the industry, making it their top choice. Advisors at small firms are also more likely to describe advanced risk-profiling software as transformative — 21% do, compared with 18% at large firms.

ABSORBING LOSSES
Advisors who report success launching risk-profiling technology say that it has been instrumental in helping clients discover their ability to absorb losses — or take on risk to pursue higher gains.

These programs also can explain which investments fit a client’s profile, and then design appropriate portfolios for these clients.

“It has been fun to watch the lightbulb come on when we’ve talked about how you shouldn’t gauge your portfolio’s performance based on what the S&P 500 is doing unless you are investing at the risk level of the S&P 500,” says one planner at a national RIA. “It has really helped us to manage clients’ expectations.”

Other advisors say risk-profiling software has given them a competitive edge. For one, it allows them to “bring new prospects under management due to misaligned investments with other brokers,” says an advisor at a dually registered RIA affiliated with a broker-dealer.

Among midsize firms — those with $100 million to $500 million under management — client portals are seen as the most dynamic technological component.

About 44% of advisors in this group say advancements in the way they interact with clients will change the industry in the next few years, citing back-office efficiencies, up-to-date reports, secure communications and differentiation with competitors that rely on paper.

These new portal systems have “removed the wall between client and advisor when it comes to knowledge of their financial position,” says an advisor at a national RIA.

Advisors also told Financial Planning they have been able to tap into new client assets through account aggregation features.

RECRUITING OUTLOOK
Robust technology has helped many firms attract talented staff by enabling them to build strong books of business. Indeed, some technology has the potential to change the entire landscape of recruiting and hiring.

Respondents say that introducing behavioral finance software, automated investment advice and real-time financial activity reporting are most likely to impact recruiting and hiring at their firms.

Sophisticated technology also allows back-office planners to “create holistic financial plans for our clients” and engage in a genuinely collaborative process, another advisor with a dually registered RIA affiliated with a broker-dealer says.

NOT A BRIDGE TOO FAR
And while robo advice and artificial intelligence may seem like a bridge too far for some planning practices, many advisors say they have made major strides by improving fundamental technology, including customer relationship management and financial planning software.

Compared with technologies further out on the frontier, respondents score both of these systems favorably in terms of ease of integration and ease of learning how to use them — key considerations in deciding which technology to adopt.

Moreover, putting basic building blocks in place can be just the beginning of a digital transformation.

One advisor at an RIA affiliated with a broker-dealer says the transition to a new CRM system took a lengthy process of acculturation, but “now that we’ve been doing it for a few years, our advanced analytics group has developed some impressive models for sales and service interventions.”

When it comes to recommendations, tech decision-makers are skewing younger. In 2017, 25.5% of those who influenced which tools to purchase were 25 to 34, and 37.1% of them were 35 to 44.

When actually making the final decision, 6.8% of those who ruled on purchases were 25 to 34, and 21.5% were 35 to 44.

It could be that certain generations are more comfortable working with digital tools, allowing for greater innovation and efficiencies.

“We recently purchased Redtail Imaging to fully go paperless,” one advisor says. “This has led to far less copying, printing and wasted time. We can easily share access with clients also.”

The tools are there. Let’s see if adoption continues.


NEW TECH SUCCESS STORIES
We asked advisors to tell us the good and bad about their technology solutions. Here's what they had to say:

The Good…

  • We were able to switch to a web-based phone, fax and document management system, which saved us time and money and increased our mobility.
  • We went from sharing files over the cloud to a physical file server with a mobile client. We are able to keep reliable track of client files in the office, back them up to a third-party cloud and access the files in a secure way. It adds a layer of convenience, and also gives the appearance of constant readiness to our clients.
  • We recently updated our client portal to be more user friendly and robust, and we get great feedback from it.
  • We recently implemented a streamlined insurance platform that has been generating lots of new business due to ease of processing applications.
  • We purchased bond market analytic software, which enhanced our ability to manage client accounts.
  • We have recently upgraded one of the software packages in our system. The technology was up-to-date and easy to use. Most important, the technology helped improve our workflow and made our processes more efficient, and so increased our sales revenues.
  • We have recently added the capability for clients to upload documents directly online. This has cut down dramatically on the time workflows take to be finished.
  • We have a portal that simulates the pre-client experience of what it’d look like if they were to come on board. People really enjoy taking things for a “test drive” before committing.

… And the not so good

  • I wish I could share a success story, but of all of the changes in the last three years, I don’t think any of them have been particularly beneficial, just more of the same.
  • We are using all old tech!
  • We are still waiting for something worth telling; so far, we’ve only maintained ourselves in line with our competition.
  • I do not have a success story. Technology is a necessary evil and integrating the various platforms is a major pain. A single robust solution would save us a lot of time and money.
  • There are no recent purchases. But a purchase is desperately needed.

To see more insights from our annual survey, please see our interactive graphic: Tech Survey: The forces reshaping wealth management

Harry Terris

Harry Terris

Harry Terris is a Financial Planning contributing writer in New York. He is also a contributing writer and former data editor for American Banker.