Posted by Jon Schubin on Wed, Feb 24 2016

All Posts by Jon Schubin

Making a robot feel more human

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When Cognito’s global staff gathered recently in Dublin for the biannual company offsite we call Cognicon, I took my opportunity onstage to conduct an informal survey. I asked them how they managed their money.

Many people were silent. A couple people, most of them relatively young, admitted to having no active plan for saving. A few colleagues, some with grey temples, others without, talked about employing a financial adviser. One was someone’s uncle, another a family friend. All seemed to be found through a connection.

“Is anyone here using an online-only service?”

Silence. More than 50 people, all with financial services knowledge beyond the average consumer, but not one person is taking advantage of the largest shift in asset management of the past 20 years.

These online-only advisors, frequently called “robo-advisers,” use formulas based on income, life expierence and saving goals to develop personalized savings and investment plans. Many also offer budget services, creating a complete money management system. This comes at a fraction of the price of traditional advisors, which can cost between 1 and 1.5% of total assets every year.

It’s an easy pitch in theory, but employing it in practice has been more difficult. The Economist reported last fall about the difficulty robo-advisers are having attracting meaningful levels of assets. $30 billion may seem like a lot of money, but with the number of companies in the space and the extremely low fees charged, it’s not enough.

At Cognicon, we tried to explore why robo-advisors aren’t taking a more meaningful piece of the retirement savings market. After all, these companies hit many of the buzzwords we hear time and again are required to attract millennials. These services have slick graphics, deep mobile applications and are designed to minimize time wasted by the customers.

If the complaints I heard on-stage weren’t completely surprising, they are telling. “I’m worried about what will happen where there’s a market crash,” one person said. “I don’t trust a robot with my money,” said another. A third person was concerned if a robo-advisor could handle saving for retirement and the first house they were getting ready to buy.

There was a second group, people who weren’t opposed to the idea but hadn’t gotten around to trying a service. It felt like a large step, one person said, perhaps for another day.

I thought about the conversation after coming back to New York. What chance did this industry have if they couldn’t convince a single member from this financial-savvy group to make the switch? I’ve seen the banner ads and subway advertisements, the radio spots and coverage in the business sections about these companies. They are executing across channels, where people can read them. They just aren’t getting through.

This isn’t the end of the robo-advisory market. The product they offer is too good and too well-funded to go away. But I do hope the new year brings some reconsideration from the companies in the industry. Here’s some unsolicited pieces of advice:

• Be bold. Changing an investment process is a big decision. Momentum is a powerful force, especially when people are dealing with their money. I encourage companies to draw connections between the new ways people operate in every other part of their life and the staid way they manage their money.

• Stand out. Here are three taglines from three different robo-advisers. Meet the technology that can change the way you invest. The Modern Way to Manage Your Net Worth Your investment accounts work better when they work together They basically say the same thing. I’ve met people who have come around to the idea of having a robo-advisor but don’t make the switch because every company sounds the same. Research the competition and figure something new to say.

• Get ready to explain. Robo-advisor products have been tested by large technology teams and with regulators. They have many of the same protections of the mutual funds millions of people use every day. But yet, concern persists that people are storing their money with a potential-HAL who could lock their funds in the airlock. This isn’t true, but until people realize it, many will stay on the sidelines.

There are literally trillions of dollars that could be poured in their robo-advisors. There’s a chance for companies and investors to save money and more easily react to market conditions. But until one or more companies find the right message, it’ll be hard to convince my colleagues (and the larger public) to make the leap.

Cognito, Financial Services, Investment News,
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