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Four Visions for the Future of Financial Planning

By Kevin Keller, CAE January 08, 2018 LinkedIn

We can’t predict the future perfectly, but we do know one thing about digital financial advice: It will never be able to replicate the most important work humans do.

We’ve been talking a lot about this at Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP Board). For the last two years, we have convened a Digital Advice Working Group. It’s a cross-section of financial services experts and stakeholders planning for the future by considering how digital financial advice will change our work.

Digital advice will continue to be one of the most important discussions taking place across our profession in 2018. To set the stage, let’s look at what the experts came up with last year.

Four visions for the not-to-distant future of financial advice in 2021 were developed using a scenario planning tool developed by the internationally known consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles. They ranged across four possible future scenarios:

Everyone Goes Digital – Some people get their advice online, and others, probably with more sophisticated needs, seek it through human financial advisors. But everyone taps into the same underlying technology to guide most financial behavior. This is offered by a handful of large companies.

Judgment Day – Thanks to advances in machine learning, digital advice platforms can now “think” like a financial advisor and provide comprehensive financial plans that span investment management, wealth management, tax planning, retirement, and multiple other financial disciplines.

Rise of the Humans – The growing complexity of financial products extends the time horizon to realize greater automation of financial advice. Unforeseen market events that catch “robo advisors” by surprise reduce credibility in the eyes of consumers and drive hiring of human advisors to emphasize the “human touch.”

Back to the Future – In this scenario, a cyberattack directed at an online digital advice platform turns consumers away from human-less systems and drives a preference for the financial advisor. Advancements in back-office technology and automation, however, do not slow, freeing time for the advisor to focus on the delivery and implementation of advice.

All of these scenarios are plausible, especially the last two. This New Year, unfortunately, could see more of the cyberattacks that have affected millions of Americans. All these scenarios share another common element: In each of them, we see the need for a human advisor who can communicate clearly with clients and develop a relationship based on trust. Human advisors show their edge here in three important ways:

Human advisors can meet a universally accepted standard

A big part of fostering trust is knowing that a financial advisor has the competency and ethical background to address client needs and put the clients’ needs first. This means that we see firms rely on financial designations and certifications as outward indicators of this level of competency and ethics.

Hence, you see firms build leaner, more thoughtful designation strategies. They want to show clients their education, experience, and ethics. With this in mind – and the need for clients to truly be able to trust their advisor – I believe by 2021 we’ll reach the logical conclusion of this movement: universally accepted standards. When we want tax advisors, we’ll look for Certified Public Accountants. And when we want a financial planner or financial advisor, we’ll find a CFP® professional.

The legitimacy of our profession demands universal standards. When we are all measured against a high standard of integrity, consumers will trust our work and will have reason to stick with us in an evolving market that seems to offer them more options every day.

Human advisors can build and use soft skills

Advising people on their important decisions requires the soft skills that we talk so much about. A family’s struggle with a serious illness, or, say, planning for a death or divorce requires the ability to think in “grays” and to understand and reflect back the nuances of human emotion.

We already see evidence of the importance of soft skills. Hybrid services like Vanguard PAS and Personal Capital have grown in popularity. Now, large and small firms with an online presence want more CFP® professionals to do what pure artificial intelligence (AI) can’t: account for the unexpected and understand human nature.

Human advisors can care

AI can sift through your data, build a profile, and suggest next best interactions. It may eventually be able to mimic emotion, or predict and manage the complexities of human behavior. But it can’t care while it’s doing so, and clients will know that.

Caring, though, is how the financial planning profession gets to the future. We’ll thrive when we hire and train for the “soft skills” to connect with our clients, when we move toward universal standards that communicate our value clearly, and when we embrace advances in digital advice and position ourselves as the answer to its shortcomings. Resources like Communication Essentials for Financial Planners will be invaluable for advisors who want to stay ahead of the curve and sharpen their communication and listening skills.

The future of financial advisors is in advice – just as it always has been.

Originally published on LinkedIn, January 8, 2018

About the Author: Kevin Keller, CAE is Chief Executive Officer of CFP Board. Under his leadership, in support of CFP Board’s mission to benefit the public by granting the CFP® certification and upholding it as the recognized standard of excellence for competent and ethical personal financial planning.