“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
— Elbert Hubbard
As a wealthtech consultant, I’ve heard my share of clients complaining about their tech stack. But lately, the complaints are shifting from the usual ones about clunky user interfaces, poor service and buggy code, to more about having too many choices when looking for new software.
The Kitces/Ezra Group Advisortech Map currently counts over 400 applications fighting each other to grab advisors’ attention and subscription fees– but is that helping the industry and giving advisors more options, or simply adding bloat and confusion?
To find out what industry experts think about the current state of wealthtech, Brian Hamburger graciously invited me to be on a panel at the 2022 MarketCounsel Summit in Las Vegas. I was joined by Joel Bruckenstein, founder and CEO of the T3 Conferences, along with Oleg Tishkevich, CEO of Invent.us and Kartik Srinivasan, Head of 3rd Party Integrations, Digital Advisor Solutions, at Charles Schwab. We discussed the current state of technology in the wealth management industry, its strong and weak points, and what we think it should look like in the future.
While we all agreed that advisors aren’t being fully supported by their technology, we disagreed on what exactly the problem is, and just as importantly– who exactly should be responsible for solving it.
Drowning in Their Own Secret Sauce
Every firm is angling for their own advantage, but often the race for uniqueness comes at the cost of integrations as enhancing the core product offering takes precedence. Most wealthtech vendors are smaller companies with limited budgets and resources, which makes these tradeoffs common.
Only the top 10% of vendors have end-to-end solutions and/or more than 20 available integrations. This leaves advisory firms that want to build a best-of-breed offering left having to hire expensive IT staff and write their own code to cobble together a solution.
A wealth of integrations acts as a sort of moat for the larger vendors and their hold on client firms as smaller vendors can’t break into the game without a significant spend.
Bruckenstein explained that when the annual T3 technology survey, which he runs with industry legend Bob Veres, had asked advisory firms about their biggest technology challenges, integrations most always come out at or near the top.
Tishkevich emphasized the vastness of integration as a category and all it encompasses, “It’s not just a one-time fix. It’s about controlling the client experience.”
I have been partnering with Michael Kitces on the Kitces/Ezra Advisortech Map which has been growing non-stop since 2017. As the number of applications has expanded from 80 to over 400 today, integrations have become both less reliable and less transparent. This is one of the reasons why we launched the Ezra Group WealthTech Integration Score, to help people compare the integration capabilities of different products.
Another issue is firms changing management. Bruckenstein discussed how firms that at one time were open to integrating with a large array of products went through mergers and acquisitions and no longer want to offer easy integrations.
As the largest custodian in the industry, Schwab has the power to choose who they will integrate with. Everyone has their own integration philosophy, Srinivasan said, but at Schwab they go through a rigorous evaluation of a product’s function and security. They also house a full Relationship Management Team to create strategy for building relationships with technology partners and continue expanding their ecosystem. (See Can You Control The Rings of Financial Empowerment?)
Who Owns Integrations?
While the entire panel agreed that integrations are a major concern, we disagreed on who exactly should be most concerned about them.
Tishkevich argued that it is not the custodians’ responsibility to solve integration issues for advisors since as business owners, they are the ones responsible for creating solutions to their own issues. ”You are in charge of your own destiny,”” he asserted.
“Every software system is built on an island,” he continued. “When it’s born, it’s not connected to anything.” As a third-party application adds clients and gains market share, other vendors will start building connections to it, but all of the integrations and APIs only complicate the issue. For Tishkevich, the central issue is that both the vendor and the advisor are trying to create their own unique experience.
Tishkevich’s utopia is for every advisory firm to be able to implement and maintain a flexible best-of-breed solution. In this set-up, they could pick and choose vendors and the integrations would be simple to connect The only way to reach this type of a-la-carte system design is for all the vendors to “stop sitting on their own islands, get together, and make it happen,” Tishkevich contended. (See Finding the Cure for Fragmented Data in Legacy Wealth Management Systems)
Bruckenstein added that it’s a matter of scale when it comes to any type of customized solution. While large firms have the ability to hire their own full time technology team and can control their experience, smaller firms, which he defined as those with under $5 billion AUM, usually don’t have the resources to do so.
The actual amount of AUM isn’t always relevant. in my opinion, since private equity firms are investing in RIAs and funding their growth through acquisitions. We have a few RIA clients that started with us under $5 billion in AUM but quickly grew beyond that. The PE money funds not only their growth but their expanded IT staff as well. (See 4 Questions Advisors Should Ask About Digital Client Experience)
Bring on the Power Tools
Wealth management firms are always looking for new ways to automate manual processes, and there are a lot of great new applications coming onto the market. Client meeting automation is one area that has not seen much innovation with advisors and their staff spending 10 hours a week or more searching for notes, preparing agendas, and documenting client discussions and follow up tasks.
- The Conversation Hub takes an all-in-one approach by offering their own integrated video meeting platform (think Zoom on steroids) with a graphical agenda divided into color-coded blocks that walks the client through the meeting step by step. Advisors can enter client information directly and it will be sent to their CRM at the end of the process. They also developed a proprietary Meeting Quality score to help evaluate the success of each meeting. This would be useful for enterprise firms to monitor the performance of larger groups of advisors
- Pulse360 takes an entirely different path by focusing more on organizing, categorizing and automating the generation of the specific types of content that advisors use most often such as agendas, summaries and post-meeting correspondence. The software helps advisors build repeatable processes that not only save time but help an RIA to scale. Pulse360 has some of the tightest CRM integrations I have seen including the ability to launch Redtail workflows based on meeting action items.
One of my pet peeves is fintechs that claim their software is built using artificial intelligence and machine learning, when it’s really just a rules engine or something similar. A couple of simple questions is all it takes to root out this marketing hype.
This makes me all the more impressed when I do find a product with a solid AI/ML base. One such product is CatchLight, which launched last year out of Fidelity Labs in the digital marketing category on the Kitces\Ezra Group Advisortech map. Their software plugs into the CRM and then ranks the firm’s pipeline based on which prospects are most likely to convert. This allows advisors to prioritize their time and efforts when prospecting. According to their research and early clients, their ranking greatly increases the conversion rate, which is a direct driver of company growth. (See Artificial Intelligence Powered CRM with Brian McLaughlin, Redtail Technology)
Why Flush Your Data Down The Drain?
Bruckenstein launched the panel into a heated discussion about data aggregation when he said that it was relatively easy to connect retirement accounts like 401(k)s and 529s to advisory platforms. Srinivasan pointed out that it was actually quite difficult but has been made easier over the years as aggregation vendors were forced by financial institutions to move from screen scraping to direct API feeds.
This greatly improved the data quality and also almost totally eliminated broken connections that were plaguing data aggregation vendors. These data breaks impact client satisfaction as it blocks updates in holdings from appearing in the client portal.
Client complaints are a huge driver of new technology. According to a survey conducted by software provider AdvisorEngine and their parent company, Franklin Templeton, 69% of advisors feel that the greatest value provided by technology integration is the ability for asset/account aggregation to provide a unified view of holdings to clients.
There’s still confusion around what data aggregation can and can’t do, Srinivasan stated. It can’t be used for performance reporting since the data is usually not reconciled. But if the advisor wants to know balances and positions of a client’s held away accounts to run a financial plan, then aggregated data should be fine, he noted.
Schwab will work with any data aggregation vendor that asks to connect to their API, Srinivasan explained. They currently work with vendors including Envestnet | Yodlee, Intuit, Morningstar By All Accounts, and Plaid Wealth (Formerly Quovo) to pull Schwab data for their mutual clients. Schwab also has partnered with Yodlee to build out their own aggregation capabilities which surfaces data for advisors who log onto Schwab.com.
Ezra Group has done some research in data aggregation and what we have found is that there is no standardized methodology for comparing vendors. No one is analyzing their data feeds to verify the accuracy, reliability or scalability across data aggregation vendors including the ones listed above as well as other vendors such as Aqumulate, Blueleaf, Fidelity eMoney Advisor, MX, Wealth Access, Xignite. (See How BI Can Help Tailor Your Business Results)
A Mountain of Applications
I Another area where I disagreed with the other panelists was with the idea that there are too many software applications in our industry. Joel and Kartik both said there is an over-abundance of technology options in our industry, which they feel can be overwhelming to advisors at times.
I contend that the wealth management space appears technology-barren. While 400+ applications may seem like a lot, other sectors such as marketing tools, have thousands of choices, as illustrated by the Martech map that’s closing in on 10,000 applications! As an industry, we have a long way to go before we are saturated with software options.
Tishkevich predicted that in the near future, the back office would be completely automated and this would further reduce the advantages provided by robo-advisors. He also proposed that hybrid solutions would take over the industry with human advisors at the helm of a supportive digital experience. While many pundits believe advisors will be disrupted by robos the way taxis were disrupted by Uber, Tishkevich believes this will not happen due to the strong relationships that exist between advisors and their clients. (See Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: After Motif Closes, Which Roboadvisors Will Survive?)
Advisors would be better off expanding usage of their existing software , rather than buying something new, Srinivasan stated. Surveys have shown that up to 80% of software features are never actually used, which could be a sign of feature bloat or that companies often fail to follow-up on initial rounds of training and users never look beyond the small subset of functionality they use in their daily processes.
Every firm should appoint a software evangelist who is responsible for promoting usage of the core applications to all employees, Srinivasan recommended. Why spend money for software just to see it languish and be under-utilized? Increasing user adoption rates cannot be accomplished overnight. It must be a long-term commitment that is part of every company’s business goals.
For Srinivasan, it comes down to understanding your firm’s application utilization. There are a number of tools that can be installed on your network that monitor which systems users are logging into and what functions are being used. By tracking utilization across the firm for long periods of time, you can develop in-depth knowledge of how your software is being used and then develop an action plan to increase adoption and utilization of the key applications in your tech stack, Srinivasan said. (See 7 Tips for Improving Your Firm’s Data Analytics)
Making Intentional Tech Choices
Every wealth management firm has a tech stack, but the difference between successful and average firms often comes down to whether their tech was built accidentally or purposely. Was new software selected and implemented without evaluating the functionality map of the existing software? Or does management continually monitor usage and capabilities and thoughtfully plan the technology roadmap?
This panel of industry experts only had an hour to share their knowledge on a wide range of topics. But everyone reading this has the opportunity to change the way their firm manages their tech stack and change it for the better.
Don’t let that opportunity slip away.