Robot holding a businesswoman
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More than the competition related to service and fees, robo advisors have changed the discussion around financial advice through effective branding and by creating new client expectations, experts said Monday at an event hosted by Advisor’s Edge.

It’s up to advisors to respond with branding that differentiates them and their services, and by adopting technology for an equally seamless client experience, the speakers said.

The June 18 “How to Be a Better Advisor” event was held at Toronto’s Arcadian Court. It featured discussions about branding, technology and translating tough concepts for clients.

Robos have been effective largely because of their branding, said Lara Galloway, business coach at White Glove Workshops.

“It’s not so genius what they’re doing,” she said on a panel about being customer centric in a world of AI and robos. “They figured out their marketing.”

That marketing prowess, as demonstrated by services such as Wealthsimple, has added an extra challenge for advisors’ pitches to clients, said creative director and branding strategist Chris Torbay in the opening keynote.

Read: What happens when advisors use robos

The robo brands suggest that “getting to know you, and tailoring a package for you, and giving you access to the best products isn’t actually rocket science. It’s actually so simple robots can do it,” he said.

In response, advisors have to find a more compelling answer to the “Why you?” question in their branding, he said.

Competing with robos

Robos’ impact has been most profound when it comes to client expectations, said Susan Silma, practice leader for client and industry strategy at PureFacts Financial Solutions.

Clients expect technology-enabled financial advice, she said. But she doesn’t consider robos a significant threat, since those requiring help with complicated questions will still need to look elsewhere for advice.

“I think there’s limited runway,” she said of the platforms.

Mukul Ahuja, leader of insurance strategy and innovation at Monitor Deloitte, said robos have changed the nature of the competition for clients, as well as how they’re served. But he doesn’t see robos taking over the role of advisors.

“It’s the financial planners and advisors that use robo advice and AI to their advantage that will take over the roles of those that don’t,” he said.

Read: How regulators are adapting to robo growth

The online platforms have, to a certain extent, commoditized financial advice, Galloway said. But advisors needn’t worry about the clients who aren’t looking for more than that. Those who do need more will come back, she said, especially if advisors ask clients questions they wouldn’t know to ask themselves.

Advisors need to make sure their platforms are up to snuff, though. People expect less friction in their interactions now, whether ordering takeout or hailing a cab, and robos have hastened the evolution in the financial realm. Advisors’ processes need to evolve to meet those demands, the panelists said.

Onboarding is too often still an “ugly” one-to-two-hour slog involving multiple signatures and too many questions, Silma said. Advisors need to urge their firms to address this pain point by developing digital, automated solutions.

But there are steps to take without waiting for firms. Advisors can use software to make their calendars accessible to clients, allowing clients to book their own appointments within set windows, Galloway said.

New tech also creates opportunities to target communications and reach clients where they want to be reached, whether that’s by text, email, phone or on social media, Silma said.

“One of the beautiful things about technology […is] that you can segment your client base and you can send relevant information to each client,” she said. “If you know that a client is at a certain life stage—having kids or worrying about kids’ education—get them messages about that versus messages that would be relevant to folks in retirement.”

Read: Why and how to compete with tech behemoths

While robos collect troves of demographic data based on customers’ interactions with their products, Ahuja said advisors can make use of their face-to-face contact with clients to develop psychographic profiles based on more personal details, such as hobbies, family vacation preferences or causes they care about.

Advisors can document these details and use them to prepare for conversations or to tailor communications, providing a level of personalization to differentiate themselves from robos, he said.

“It might lead to a different way of segmenting your client base and a different way of targeting some of the messages you want to share with them,” he said.

Get personal with your branding

That level of personalization is also important to branding, Torbay said.

“For financial advisors, there appear to be a limited number of messages people are hearing from everyone. You’re well-trained and experienced. You know the markets. You take time to get to know your clients. You tailor your plans for each individual investor. You have access to the best products. You have a track record of success.”

Advisors can’t own those messages while trying to appeal to every demographic, he said, and he encouraged advisors to pick one. The message has to be specific, showing precisely how you get to know clients, for example: “Give me a reason to believe you can tailor for me, and especially me.”

He offered the example of car rental company Enterprise, which has used the slogan “We pick you up” to own a specific service element rather than competing broadly on better service.

Galloway acknowledged that advisors are often reluctant to include personal details and “put themselves out there” in their messaging. But she encouraged advisors to use photos that highlight their personality—whether that’s skiing, hiking or posing with the family—and that have the potential to connect with clients and prospects.

“By talking about your personal self, the chances are you’re going to attract more people than you would by being the plain vanilla,” she said.

Answering the “Why me?” branding question begins by deconstructing what makes your practice successful, Torbay said—what you’re good at and what you can own more than others, whether that’s a personal interest or an element of service.

Read: 20 ways to be a better advisor