Note: This blog post has been adapted from a podcast interview with Katie Royals, the managing editor of PAM insight.
In a wealth management context, the service that clients expect has undergone a transformation. Whereas in-person meetings and long lunches were once the norm, the digital impulse driving every sector is also redefining today’s client-advisor interactions.
However, meeting these new demands is easier said than done, and wealth management firms or private banks are being faced with a series of challenges. From a reticence to undertake full digital transformation to regulatory complications regarding client-advisor communications, delivering on the promise of client-centricity can be a tightrope walk.
In this interview, Danny Baggs, UK Marketing Director of Unblu, examines the most pressing challenges the wealth management sector is facing and offers his insights into the best way forward to achieve true client-centricity.
Could you give us a short introduction about Unblu?
Unblu is a swiss-born software provider, offering a Conversational Engagement Platform to aid the role of wealth advisors. With Unblu, advisors are able to interact with clients in a single digital conversation that’s ongoing, convenient and efficient, as well as secure and compliant.
How can the human element work with technology to enhance wealth advisors’ offering?
In the financial services industry, technology has had a bad rap – certainly in the last two decades. If you look in the retail banking space, technology has been used as a way to increase the efficiency of banks and financial services providers to push a lot of self-service type tasks. Customers and clients are expected to give a little bit more themselves, which of course is convenient, but through that, the human element has definitely been lost.
We’re at a point now where that’s changing. It’s a bit of a cliche, but the likes of Netflix, Amazon etc. have changed how people expect to interact using technology. The industry has come of age. There’s a way in which we can look at technology to offer convenience to people and, through this convenience, it offers a way for companies to develop trust and loyalty with customers.
Should firms be worried that technology is going to replace their human advisors?
Certainly not. Technology plays a great role to augment advisors’ responsibilities and their tasks. That’s quite a nice way of looking at what technology can do. There’s been a misnomer in the past where there’s been a lot of talk about chatbots, AI, and all this kind of thing, and there’s a desire to kind of replace a human.
That’s not where people really truly want technology to help them – it’s more an augmenting role. If we look at the way things have developed over many years, where technology has been introduced, it facilitates things that people want to do already.
Even if you take it back to simple things – like the telephone – it augmented and enhanced the way that people communicated. We’re in that stage now where digital channels can really help wealth advisors to interact a lot more with their clients and do it in a more meaningful way for them.
It’s more convenient, efficient, and also in a way where they’ve got their checks and balances covered as well, meaning it can be secure and compliant. That’s where we, as Unblu, really, really fit in.
In terms of technology augmenting the offering, what processes or products have really helped improve this?
The stereotypical wealth advisor client relationship is one that is traditionally built up through interactions that are either in person or over the phone. And they’re very personalized experiences of course.
Things like messaging are pervasive in society and people are used to that approach – the asynchronous message concept like WhatsApp where they fire off a message without expecting an answer straight away. They may get it straight away but they’re okay with the fact that they might get a response later.
That’s a really good example of something that could be convenient in the wealth space where you’ve already got a very close relationship between the client and advisor. What could be better than placing your advisor in your clients’ pockets?
You give them direct access when they need it. They could be firing off a message on a secure and compliant messaging app about an investment idea they read in a magazine during their commute. The advisor can then act upon that message in a light-touch way, allowing them to prepare for a higher touch, more intensive interaction later.
This could be through a desktop session, where they might be having a video session with somebody else that’s a little bit more collaborative. They can go through their portfolio together or go through an investment idea research together, for example.
There are lots of opportunities where technology can augment that role of the advisor to interact more. Therefore, they can help them grow the assets that are on their books from the clients.
If you’re looking at the wealth industry as a whole, there’s a lot of pressure on lowering the fees and reducing costs in this manner. The obvious way to address that is to increase the efficiency of advisors and make them available 24/7 to a certain degree. Obviously there’s boundaries there, but making them more accessible is going to help clients to interact and transact more.
Do you think there might be any pushback from advisors? The idea of some of that 24/7 availability could be seen as quite intrusive to some.
Everything depends on the situation. If you look at the advisers for ultra-high-net-worth individuals, they are effectively on call 24/7 anyhow. But that’s to be defined by the boundaries of the company.
I think it should be seen as an additional tool to support their clients. Rather than needing to be at the behest of a phone call, you could be interacting with one client while another one is messaging you or sending an email.
Generally the studies show that people find messaging more convenient than emails. So, rather than it being seen as being more intrusive, it’s an aid for them to do their role. They don’t need to get in the car and go and see somebody physically; there are a lot of light touches that can happen along the financial journey leading to an investment or financial product.
Given the tight regulation on the industry, how can you ensure these messaging apps are both secure and compliant?
This is a very hot topic. We’ve seen over the last year, regulators – whether over in the US or FCA at home – are starting to clamp down on this. When we hone in on what the UK is doing, the FCA are clear in their guidance on electronic communications, specifically that we should be recording it. Should there be a dispute later or some kind of issue to investigate, that information is available to access.
Part of this is a cultural challenge because, over the last five to ten years, something like WhatsApp has crept in. Clients find it convenient and it’s almost like the tail wagging the dog. The clients are forcing advisors to use WhatsApp, and by doing that, they’re exposed to that risk by not complying with the regulations.
It’s important that tools are used, like Unblu, where you can offer the convenience and efficiency of something like WhatsApp, but that’s also embedded within the app of the wealth firm. It’s giving the client convenience they want, so they desire to go into WhatsApp. They can have the same experience within their wealth app. The point, from the advisor side, is that it’s recorded and therefore is both compliant and secure.
There have been huge fines dished out over in the U.S. where staff within certain organizations were using their own private devices and private, unauthorized channels. Some big firms are already talking about putting money aside because they’re anticipating fines.
It’s a real issue and yet companies are turning a blind eye to it and mitigating that risk by issuing advisor guidance. But in reality the advisors are dictated to by the client to a certain degree. Unless they’ve got a true, convenient alternative, they are going to do what the client wants.
Why do you think firms are turning a blind eye?
It’s a strange one because it’s almost like a level of ignorance, without meaning to be too provocative. There is a loose acknowledgement that they should be doing something. But, there’s a comparison to the traditional way of working where they would say, “If we had a face-to-face meeting, I wouldn’t be setting up a camera to record that.” There’d be paperwork to kind of cover the bases there instead.
There’s a shift going on that’s being accelerated by the experiences of the last couple of years. The pandemic forced everyone to look at digital but there’s a level of naivety there. We’ve all reacted to the pandemic response by using Microsoft Teams and Zoom en masse. But this doesn’t give you everything that you need in terms of compliance. Most importantly, it doesn’t give the client true convenience because they can’t pull out their phone and send their advisor a message. It’s always dictated by the advisor to say we’re going to have a meeting at this point in time.
Coming back to the original question, I think there’s a mix of reasons why it’s not on the agenda. A lot of companies have an older advisory workforce when compared to the incoming client base. So, there’s also a lack of desire to change and they’re happy with the way things are. But I think we’re seeing that the new demographic is forcing their hand and forcing a change.
What sort of advice would you offer to firms that are beginning to look at these issues?
The advice here is pretty clear because there’s a nice top-down approach, which is to look closely at what you’re doing from a client perspective. In other words, turning the company client-centric. There’s been a lot of talk about this kind of thing, but now’s the time to really start looking at it.
If you start looking at things through the eyes of your clients, that will force the right kind of decisions. It might even be small things. If you’re using digital in the form of Teams and Zoom, you may think you’re doing a good job and that’s your digital transformation done.
But start to think, is that truly offering convenience? Do they need to download something before they interact with you? Or could they log in to their portal to review their portfolio and the advisor is just one click away because of an embedded channel? That level of convenience has a knock-on effect of increasing interaction, trust, and loyalty.
That fits very well in the wealth management industry given it is so client-centric. So hopefully they’re quite in tune with it, right?
Absolutely. Traditionally, it’s a very client-centered industry, but it’s about focusing on the details. Today’s world is transforming. Everyone’s got an ongoing transformation project ongoing or it’s on their radar.
It’s about focusing on that detail that really poses the question, am I offering client efficiency and convenience? And am I differentiating my service because what’s stopping that client – or their heir – from going elsewhere? There are many many advisory firms out there that are looking at this kind of thing.
Two-and-a-half years ago, having a conversation on Teams or Zoom would have been a bit unusual. Where might we be going in the next two or three years?
That’s an interesting question. You’re right, I rarely had video calls before, but now I find it weird not to have a video call. That perception has changed quickly and given what we’re seeing in the consumer space, in things like WhatsApp, that onward charge in the pervasiveness of messaging is only going to continue into new sectors.
I see the opportunity in the compliance angle. Not many are looking at it too rigorously in tandem with the convenience side for the client. They may be looking at it internally and asking, “how can we cover ourselves for the regulation? That’s what we’ll do.” But is the decision they reach truly offering convenience in the way that the client demands? I’m not so sure. Some of these newer technologies will be coming into play.
I’m not so bullish on things like the Metaverse. That’s a little further out, but as a whole the sector is not very digitally mature. That’s not a criticism. The tradition is based on that highly personalized face-to-face relationship. There’s a lot of scope over the next couple of years to use the technologies that are here and now – and use them to augment the role of the advisor.
Any final thoughts?
I’d like to come back to that point around client centricity, because that’s open to interpretation. As we go through these digital transformation projects, my final takeaway is to truly focus on the client. Analyze how your digital channel offers convenience to them and look at the minutiae. How easy is it for somebody to open up an app to interact with you or use something that’s embedded into your website to have a video call, without downloading anything?
Think about the convenience and the knock-on effect of that. A lot of people get caught out when clients have to download software or there’s IT restrictions on their machines. Having channels embedded into your existing secure environment is the key takeaway.
Unblu is a leading Conversational Engagement Platform that’s fine-tuned for the financial services industry. Centered around three pillars – texting, video & voice, and collaboration – we help retail banks, wealth management firms, and insurance companies to provide faster, more secure customer service experiences.
Visit www.unblu.com to find out more.