LAS VEGAS — Alexa can now do much more than check an account balance. Robert Kirk, Founder and CEO of InterGen Data, Inc. demonstrated how Alexa could now handle a 529 account opening in minutes at the T3 Enterprise Conference in Las Vegas.
Showcasing just how quickly virtual wealth management tools have developed, Robert Kirk, founder and CEO of artificial intelligence-driven forecasting firm InterGen Data, smoothly executed an entire 529 account opening in minutes using only Amazon’s voice assistant.
The assistant never skipped a beat, asking Kirk all the questions an advisor would to open an account: Who was the beneficiary? How much would the monthly contribution be? What account would be funding the plan?
The application was built for a wealth management client, and what he showed off was a truncated version for the audience demonstration that took just two weeks to build. The point to the dramatics, he said, was to underline the pace of automation in financial planning.
"If you don't think about putting AI into your practice, [other firms] are going to take your business,” he said.
Despite a complex web of integration issues across the industry, AI’s increasing role in wealth management is one of the main factors rapidly shaping development of financial planning technology, firms gathered at this year's T3 Enterprise conference said.
Kirk, who formerly owned an RIA before turning to advisor tech development, said that AI and predictive analytics automation in wealth management would actually develop faster than most observers originally expected because the majority of clients all share many of the same life experiences.
In his experience, he counted only 54 data elements any system would need to track to manage the majority of accounts opened with an advisory firm. “The reality is when you are simplifying life, you only need a small amount of data,” he said.
There are some financial planning tasks that still cannot be easily translated for automation, such as estate planning, he said. But there are many accounts handled by an advisor that can be easily managed with AI and predictive analytics, he said.
“Opening an account for a child is easy, you can come relatively close to predicting those first 18 years,” he said. “Accounts for a blended family, though they are more complex, you’re still managing for the same life events in the end.”
Kirk and fellow presenters agreed that another major factor confronting wealth management firms and independent advisors is the effect of Amazon and other big tech firms on the level of service that clients now expect and how quickly they will have to deliver.
“There’s still one thing we can’t keep up with, consumer expectations,” said Igor Jonjic, product manager of advisor solutions at Fiserv.
According to a study by the financial services provider, the majority of wealth management customers want all their interactions and information delivered at the speed and simplicity of a search engine query, he said. Sixty-eight percent of clients, he said, want to be able to know about their accounts at any time, immediately.
But the big stumbling block the industry faces in achieving that desired response, Jonjic said, was that even now, too many advisors have tools that are not integrated with one another or sharing data.
“What use is your financial planning tool if it can’t use the information in your CRM?” he asked.
Centralized systems where data is controlled and ordered in unison has to become the standard, he added. “A cohesive platform allows data to flow freely from one domain to another, so advisors don’t have to waste time consuming the same information over and over again,” he said.
Chris Fesler, Apex Clearing’s chief technology officer, was even blunter in his diagnosis. “The problem isn’t people – stupid systems induce bad behavior,” he said.
Fesler said that meeting customer demands in technology would require an examination about how practices in the industry could be changed. From his perspective, that includes the practice of custodians holding a percentage of cash positions in portfolios, and the distribution fees attached to mutual funds.
“Financial services doesn’t create a lot of transparency for consumers,” he said. “They’ll describe it as a little swampy, a little crooked; that they are trusting a handful of people, crossing their fingers and hoping they are not getting suckered.
“I really feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about the way we make money in this industry, I believe it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “The new generation demands full transparency.”
Quizzed on another industry buzzword — blockchain — Fesler said he was concerned that many firms were turning to distributed ledger technology without an understanding or real purpose for its use. (In September, Apex announced it would support cryptocurrency investment access.)
"It is a powerful and incredibly smart bit of technology, but I don't know how it changes things or makes them better," he said. "I don’t know anybody knows. The only real application to date is crypto, and most people still don’t know what's happening there."
Suleman Din is technology editor of American Banker and Financial Planning. Follow him on Twitter at @sulemandn.