White Collar Robots: A Warning to Financial Advisors (and their PR Firms)

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We’ve written past blog posts on Financial Services Marketing about the invasion of robo-advisors and marketing tactics financial services firms can employ to fend off losing business to automated advisor platforms. But it’s not just financial advisors that face this threat. Automation is increasingly making its way into jobs previously considered to be reserved for living, breathing humans.

The advent of automated financial services shouldn’t come as a surprise to the financial world. With an overall surge in automation across the entire service sector, it’s surprising that the technology for a rules-based advisor platform didn’t pop up sooner. There are self-checkout lines in every grocery store and Home Depot, iPads replacing waiters and waitresses, and those dreaded customer service answering services (hint: just keep mashing “0” until you get a human).

Up until recently, however, automation hasn’t crept into “white collar” jobs, such as financial advisement. But for the 97 percent of Americans that aren’t millionaires, complex financial planning probably isn’t necessary. The plan is pretty simple: pay down your highest debts first, build emergency savings, and save for retirement/college/a house/etc. So why shouldn’t there be a simple, cost efficient means for the masses to access financial advice?

Easy for me to say; I’m not the one whose livelihood depends on people coming to me for financial advice. Instead, I write about financial topics and provide sources to reporters that also write about finance. No robot is going to be able to take that job from me, right?

A few months ago, I heard a segment on NPR covering new software called “Wordsmith”, invented by Automated Insights, which can automatically write articles in a fraction of a second. What!? Automated reporting? A little over a year ago, The Associated Press announced it would use this software to generate stories about earnings reports from publicly traded companies. The AP then expanded their use to include college sports reporting. Right now, the news service’s use of Wordsmith is focused on areas that are statistic based and formulaic, but that could change in the future to include a broader base of topics.

Algorithmic reporting is actually very wide spread. Automated Insights claims to have generated one billion articles in 2014. As a public relations professional and someone who does quite a bit of financial writing for a living, this hit close to home. I can’t exactly foster a relationship with – or offer sources to – an algorithm that crunches news and data in a fraction of a second. Is this the beginning of the end for reporters and PR professionals?

Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. Automation in the service sector is inevitable. It’s the result of a long history of humanity’s never-ending quest to achieve a better standard of living through efficiency. If companies drive down costs by producing goods more efficiently, those goods become more widely available to the masses. That same logic applies to the service industry. It started with low-skill jobs and has slowly crept its way up to white collar jobs.

There are many examples of mass production and automation throughout history, but things really got cooking during the Industrial Revolution, when machines started rapidly taking over many human jobs. The classic example is the 19th-century English textile workers called Luddites, who lost their jobs to machines that needed only a few workers to quickly and cheaply produce more cloth. In retaliation, many Luddites began destroying factories and machinery. They feared technological innovation.

As was the case with the Industrial Revolution, each successive wave of new automation brings with it a fresh round of dialogue, as people worry about machines taking their jobs. But automation has never made us obsolete. In the face of being taken over by machines, we’ve adapted, progressed, and avoided any kind of secular trend in increasing unemployment.

Fortunately, there’s only so much algorithmic reporting software can do. There will always be a need for reporters to provide insights and in-depth reporting. And as financial services PR professionals, we’re the link that provides those reporters expert commentary from actual humans. For now, I feel that we’re safe. I’ll just cross my fingers that Google and Apple hold back from developing a technological singularity.

Some financial advisors, on the other hand, will need to do more to adapt to encroaching robo-advisors. Here are a few tips:

  1. Build meaningful relationships with your clients. Take advantage of the human element. Meet with clients face to face and learn their goals and aspirations. Address their fears. Provide them hope. Win the trust that a computer can’t.
  2. Meet the progeny. Make connections with your clients’ children. After all, they’re the ones that will be inheriting $30 trillion in assets over the next 30 years.
  3. Use social media. Go where the millennials go. They’re the big earners of the future. Sign them on now and keep them on as their income and assets grow.
  4. Prove your credibility. Here’s where we get to work together. Sustained, high impact media coverage holds tremendous value in building credibility. In our world, the media, more than any other measure, confers the kind of plausible believability advisors need to separate themselves from the field.

Learn from the Luddites. They’ve been proven wrong time and time again. There’s no reason to fear automation in the service industry. We’re human, which means we’ll adapt and survive.