In their quest to find clients, we see robo-advisers as being as disruptive to the financial services sector as Uber is being to public transport.

Uber is a great example of something that was made possible by the internet. Without the net, Uber simply could not be. And yet, the internet alone did not change the world of taxis – Uber did that. The internet was certainly a vital piece of communications infrastructure which allowed a world-changing thing to happen. But it’s not the technology itself that is revolutionary today – it is how it connects people.

Currently, the debate is limited to how robo-advisers affect established players and, given their experience, capital, advertising and existing client bases, you can be assured that the established players will be at the table. Surprising new entrants may emerge in the robo-advice sector that may change the fundamental rules of the financial services sector. What if AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) entered the market with a branded white-label robo-adviser? What if Aldi or Lidl did too?

At the same time, we see and acknowledge a degree of resistance and backlash to robo-advisers. This is unsurprising as, historically, all new technologies are viewed with some suspicion.

Critical questions

There are two critical questions that most people ask:
1. Are robo-advisers better tools than human advisers?
2. If so, will robo-advisers replace humans?

The answer to question one is that robo-advisers are very good at the limited functions they perform. Their lack of human fallibility almost guarantees them to be faster, more accurate and more consistent than you or me.

And so, to question two. Is today’s adviser already on a countdown to oblivion? This is a compelling question and it is easy to fixate on it, particularly if your job is one that might be replaced.

Robo-advisers bring viable self-service to financial advice for the first time. Their advice will be low cost to deliver (although perhaps not low cost to market and promote), consistent and make it easier to maintain meaningful conversations with customers about their money through highly effective automated communications.

As travel agents and bank tellers know, many people will self-serve when technology allows them to – and if enough people self-serve you can start replacing employees with machines. But making investments is different to buying air-tickets. A lot of people want the comfort that dealing with another person in a trusting relationship can deliver.

Second factor

The second factor to recognise is the significance that robo-advisers are limited in function and scope. We still need people when things get outside the box.  There is not a robo in the world today that produces a meaningful answer to very complex financial situations. For example, there are no algorithms that we know of that address estate planning considerations across multiple family units using assets held in different trusts. It is going to take a person (and quite a skilled one at that) to address those issues using all the traditional tools in their financial adviser kit.

That is not to say that no jobs will be lost because of robo-advisers – there will be losses. Just as armies of clerks lost their jobs because Microsoft Excel was better at doing the mundane slog work than them, robo-advisers will replace people in tasks that are process driven and lend themselves to automation.

We see the days of someone with a clip-board taking a financial history in a fact-find as being very limited indeed. This raises an interesting question of how many advisers will engage clients in a discussion about their financial affairs as many currently use the fact-find as an interpersonal get-to-know-you session. When clients key their own data from home, the adviser needs a new tool to generate that discussion and engagement (we argue that tool is a discussion of the person’s risk tolerance and what that means for them as investors).

But, overall, we see adviser jobs as being at risk more at the margins – we don’t see mass lay-offs of financial advisers to be replaced by robo-advisers. Jobs are evolving all the time – displacement, in our view, is not why robo-advisers really matter.

Meanwhile …

Meanwhile, people are simply too good at selling financial services to be dumped as a distribution channel. Face-to-face marketing will always have a place – but from what we see today we cannot anticipate how big that place will be in the future.