Chatbots are everywhere: speaking up in Alexa, powering the virtual barista in Starbucks’ mobile app and taking office supplies orders for Staples. But within wealth management, chatbots aren’t part of the conversation just yet.
Only a handful of fintechs offer them within financial planning; larger wealth management firms are still experimenting with conversational technology. Some exceptions are UBS, which has an Alexa-based chatbot to field financial questions, and TD Ameritrade, which runs an account query chatbot for customers in Alexa, Facebook, Twitter and Apple iMessage.
RIAs have reason to be wary — powered by machine learning, chatbots have already evolved beyond primitive question-and-answer programs and are actively being developed to learn emotional comprehension. Some see chatbots, artifical intelligence and existing robo advisor tech combining into a low-priced, entirely automated option that commoditizes financial advice even further.
“A lot of what advisors do in communicating with clients can be potentially taken over by chatbots,” says Matthew Kane, co-founder and chief operating officer at robo advisor Hedgeable. “It's a potential threat if you are replacing the human element, which is the point of chatbots and artificial intelligence.”
A number of banks, such as Bank of America, have already employed chatbots to assist customers in personal finance management, suggest mortgage and credit options, and provide financial education, notes Dan Miller, lead analyst and founder of San Francisco-based Opus Research.
“That’s the beginning of financial advice,” says Miller, whose firm projects global investments in chatbots will increase from $750 million in 2015 to $4.5 billion by 2021. “It can walk individuals through a savings goal, savings practices to follow, and to meet their objectives. That is sort of a prototype.”
Digital advice firms using or experimenting with chatbots say they are developing the technology to eventually handle more complex advice-related questions.
Hedgeable has been testing its chatbot for the last several months, Kane says. Its mandate is relatively simple right now: onboarding new clients and answering basic questions, such as if a customers’ 401(k) rollover has occurred.
Kane surmises that in time, advisors will rely on bots to handle smaller clients to let them focus on bigger clients with more complex portfolios.
“If they have a lot of operational tasks, a chatbot can help them automate their business. That is a potential use case there. I do think they can make [financial advice] cheaper. A chatbot can do a lot of the analysis, and you can communicate with a bot a lot quicker than with a human.”
New Jersey-based robo qplum has a chatbot that right now onboards clients, educates them on finance and gives them information on accounts. But it is poised to be a robust, smarter machine that will provide clients with a full financial portfolio within two years, says Mansi Singhal, co-founder of qplum.
“We wanted something that was free-flowing where people can actually talk,” Singhal says. “The plan is to expand this and have it be self-sufficient and offer holistic advice. It’s reached a point where it can draw a preliminary roadmap for people.”
Wela, a software company in Atlanta offers a chatbot named Benjamin. Like the other bots, Benjamin can run analysis on a customer’s finances, set personalized financial goals, calculate a budget and set spending limits, and offer educational insights.
Singhal says there’s another decade before chatbots will be able to service a small client’s needs entirely. But that possibility would be a positive development, she adds.
“Planning becomes accessible to more people, who can't afford to go to a planner or engage with a financial advisor at length,” she says. “They might just find it more convenient to engage with a chatbot … It's so costly to hire a financial planner, but if you deploy a chatbot, you can have multiple conversations going on. It gives scale and affordability.”
Companies outside wealth management that have deployed chatbots say they don’t want to replace humans, nor can they, pointing out the technology usually relies on human backups. Albert Barsoumian, vice president for DISYS, a top global IT staffing and managed service provider, says the chatbots they have deployed for a number of financial services firms should not be feared.
“They are implementing chatbots but they are not reducing people,” said Barsoumian. “It’s not about subtraction of jobs but an addition of offerings.”
Though TD Ameritrade doesn’t envision chatbots taking over the job of a financial advisor, it’s in agreement that it can democratize investing, says Sunayna Tuteja, head of partnerships and emerging tech at TD Ameritrade.
“We are really harnessing a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning and automation to make some of those experiences that used to require a human touch in the past [to] operate in a new and automated way, an on-demand way, and with speed and agility,” she says.
There may be some industry resistance to using chatbots at first, Tuteja acknowledges.
“Our relationship with money has been profoundly impacted by technology,” Tuteja says. “From how we make money, save money and spend money, to how we invest. Just a few years ago, trading in a mobile app just seemed so out there, but in a matter of a few years, it became mainstream.”