Alexa, manage my practice.
Advisors wondering how Amazon will enter wealth management should look to its cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, which is pitching the natural language processing, machine-learning brain behind its voice interactive service to wirehouses, broker-dealers and robo advisors.
Already, UBS has partnered with Amazon to enable clients and non-clients of the bank to get answers to financial and economic questions through Alexa. LPL's CEO Dan Arnold gave a thumbs-up to the idea of integrating Alexa into the workflow of advisors. Fidelity is testing Amazon Web Services applications while Capital One is a customer. Betterment is already using 20 different applications as well.
Still, planners might be forgiven for wondering what use a glowing little electronic cake could be to their practice. In fact, there are a variety of ways that the technology underpinning Alexa will likely spread throughout wealth management, industry experts say, as it automates client interaction and even advice requests.
"Many important platform shifts start out looking like a toy, and then become the primary way that the younger generation communicates," says Lex Sokolin, director of fintech strategy at Autonomous Research. "Look at mobile apps, social networks, and now conversational interfaces and virtual reality. It's those companies that innovate at the edges that can capture new customers."
'THE NEW ROCKET SCIENCE'
Indeed, inside the cavernous Javits Convention Center, a room set aside for presentations on applications of Amazon Web Services for the financial services industry on Monday was packed all day, with lines of attendees waiting to get in.
Explaining to the crowd how Alexa's cloud-based brain, Amazon Lex, can be used by financial firms, Felix Candelario, a solutions architect at Amazon Web Services, didn't soft-pedal its capabilities. "Natural language processing is the new rocket science," he said.
That's the ability to have a conversation with a client as any human representative would, and still understand any request correctly and deliver the service they have asked for.
The examples demonstrated were simple but colloquial: "Cool. Can I transfer 100 bucks from my checking to savings account?" But firms can in fact use the platform to handle more complicated requests, Amazon says, noting the system is constantly learning.
So, could Alexa answer: "I have a 401(k) and I want to roll it over into an IRA, which one is best?"
Hanybal Jajoo, global account solutions architect at Amazon Web Services, explains the request would go through the chain of conversational chatbot, to Amazon Lex, and then an event-driven serverless platform (a computing platform) called AWS Lambda. It would be matched up with the customer's information based on their profile.
"It would provide the opportunity to prompt the user for additional information," Jajoo says. "The chatbot would then pass the context of the user to some sort of engine that can perform the recommendation in real-time. With this in mind, the scenario would be possible."
There are other uses, says Brian Shenson, former vice president of advisor technology at Schwab. Alexa is already doing them for its retail users now, he points out: scheduling meetings and informing them of upcoming events or needs.
"You're driving to work and you suddenly get an idea you need to integrate into your discussion with your client," Shenson says. "You have the facility to do that without having to write a note. It can be much more powerful in the delivery of client engagement and communications."
Shenson, who now runs his own consulting firm in the Bay Area, sees wealth management firms cautiously approaching the use of natural language processing and machine learning.
"I imagine larger firms with significant risk aversion will struggle to embrace it. It's Day 1, it's too black box. They don't understand how it works. This is similar to how robo advisors played out. At first, firms didn't understand how they worked behind the scenes. Now, no one thinks twice about the algorithms in the robo platform."
In addition to client engagement, key wealth management applications for the technology include advisor enablement, investment ideation and risk management, says Will Trout, head of wealth management research at Celent.
"The service could be extended even to deliver advice," Trout says. "So it's like a chatbot, but relationship-centered, and not transactional, like most of the retail banking chatbots. Plus, it has very strong natural language processing and generation capabilities. Don't underestimate Amazon."
Other firms are offering machine learning-enhanced services too, such as Salesforce's recently unveiled CRM for advisors. There are industry efforts to develop conversational interfaces also, such as Bank of America's Erica. But Amazon has an edge, Shenson says, because the base for improving Alexa extends into Amazon's customer base, which is far beyond one industry.
"They benefit from millions of interactions," he says. "And when they are widely embraced by the consumer market first, it lends more credibility than if it they tried to emerge first as a business technology."
'REINVENT SPACE TRAVEL'
Such offerings beg the question, what's the endgame for Amazon Web Services in the financial industry?
Scott Mullins, head of worldwide financial services business development at Amazon Web Services, says the goal is the same of all fintech providers: to help incumbent wealth managers ease into the digital age.
"Wealth managers can devote more time to innovating and addressing customer challenges and less time worrying about infrastructure and technology deployment," he says.
Read more: Pay attention to Amazon, advisors
Mullins notes that Betterment has offloaded a number of its internal functions to the cloud services provider. "They’ve gone all in with AWS, leveraging services like Amazon Redshift, AWS Lambda, AWS Database Migration Service, Amazon Kinesis, Amazon DynamoDB, and more," Mullins says. "Today, they are using over 20 AWS services to develop, test, and deploy features and enhancements on a daily basis."
Shenson sees the Alexa pitch as the way cloud services attempt to gain greater adoption from the financial services industry, which still has reservations about sharing highly regulated client information.
But do advisors have to think about this service becoming a bridge for Amazon retail to compete directly for clients, as robo advisors did? Trout says no.
"They want to serve the financial services industry, yes. That doesn't mean they want to enter it as a competitor. When you are trying to reinvent space travel, who cares about retail banking?"