At his doughnut shop in North Carolina, Nate Ernst was expecting a very special visitor.

Ernst, a longtime Betterment customer, would be meeting a company representative for the first time. But instead of a financial advisor, in walked Seth Styers, a Betterment copywriter.

In its ongoing evolution from a completely automated platform to an advice hybrid with financial planners, an institutional arm and a network that pairs clients with RIAs, Betterment (which now has over $14 billion in AUM) has rolled out a new initiative to connect with its customers.

Called “Coffee with Customers,” Betterment employees — from marketers to engineers — are paired up with interested customers to have informal conversations about the independent robo’s service, ranging from improving the user experience to suggesting new financial offerings in the platform.

“The goal is to essentially create decentralized connections between our employees and our customers,” says Bob Manix-Cramer, group product manager at Betterment, who kicked off the program.

Betterment employees Bob Manix-Cramer and Seth Styers
Bob Manix-Cramer, group product manager at Betterment, and Seth Styers, a copywriter at the robo, have met customers as part of its new informal chat effort.

“Obviously as an organization, we talk to our customers a lot, through research or customer support, but those initiatives always have an objective associated with them. The goal is to really inject customer empathy in day-to-day operations of our entire company and give everybody an opportunity to talk to our customers.”

The meet-and-greet started as a holiday initiative in late 2017, said Manix-Cramer. Betterment staffers would leave home for the holidays and meet with clients near their hometown, to hear from clients outside Betterment’s home in New York City.

The positive feedback from the meetups spawned the new initiative. About 40 employees have participated so far, with some of them that happen to be financial planning experts, says Arielle Sobel, company spokesperson.

Industry observers and RIAs were skeptical about the value of such coffee dates, calling it a marketing move at best.

“It sounds nice but I think they have realized it’s hard to retain clients you don’t have a personal relationship with,” says Ross Gerber, president and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki Wealth and Investment Management. “Having those personal relationships have huge value. It’s really hard to convince somebody to move their money if they are friends with their financial advisors.”

As for Betterment’s competitors, Wealthfront has a customer insights team that usually interacts with clients via Google hangout, according to Kate Wauck, Wealthfront spokesperson. Personal Capital clients can meet with advisors either in person or via video chat, says Amin Dabit, director of advisory services at Personal Capital.

Betterment has a customer feedback team as well, according to Sobel.

Steve Sanduski, president and founder of Belay Advisor, a coaching and software firm that serves financial advisors, thought the coffee initiative was a positive step.

“It’s easy for techies to hide behind a computer screen and code all day and night; what’s harder is to put in the shoe leather meeting with customers, synthesizing their feedback, and determining what changes to make based on that feedback,” says Sanduski.

For Ernst, a longtime customer, it was a thrill to meet a Betterment employee and see that the company wants to hear from him. What was billed as a 30-minute chat quickly turned into a long coffee date about Betterment’s evolution, Ernst’s doughnuts, and financial services.

“It was a positive thing for me,” Ernst says. “It was helpful to talk to someone on the other side of the app.”

Sharon Adarlo

Sharon Adarlo is a Financial Planning contributing writer in Newark, New Jersey. She has also written for The Wall Street Journal and about science and engineering for Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter at @sharonadarlo1.