Forget 'smile and dial.' In the future, working the phones for fledgling advisors could mean something entirely different than what it does now.

Schwab's recent unveiling of its hybrid robo offering has raised debate among advisors and industry observers about the future direction of the advisor career path.

Surprisingly, opinion is split, indicating acceptance that digital advice is shaping the industry's direction in an outsized fashion.

Some argue that working in a call center, answering questions about accounts and portfolios, is a good way for young advisors to learn the ropes. Others suggest that the disembodied experience doesn't give an advisor the breadth and depth needed to properly learn how to counsel clients on their finances.

Schwab and Vanguard, which currently has the biggest and most successful hybrid digital advice platform, state their respective offerings will be staffed by CFPs and offer a new level of planning to an underserved investor segment.

The hybrid robo advice model has been identified as becoming the dominant force in wealth management's digital evolution — industry consultancy A.T. Kearney has predicted the self-directed investor segment will die off as hybrid advice drops in price.

A new hybrid robo offering from Schwab has advisers wondering what future planning careers can develop in a call center.

Schwab Intelligent Advisory pushes the model in that direction, with account minimums of $25,000 and fees capped at $900 a quarter. The service is cheap enough that Joel Bruckenstein, co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today conference series and technology guides for advisors, writes in a blog post that its launch could be "the beginning of the commoditization of entry level planning."

Such hybrid platforms present new opportunities for advisors too, says CFP Board CEO Kevin Keller.

"From a career standpoint, a young CFP can gain great experience at a call center, and it will allow them to move onto face-to-face relationships," Keller says.

'CONSTANT CHANGE'

The CFP Board convened a workgroup of individuals from across the industry that it believed were creating the future of advice, Keller notes, and produced a report outlining four future scenarios for the industry. One foresaw the advice industry completely automated; another saw customer demand placing human advisors at the center of any relationship.

Keller says that it's important to stay open-minded about how the planning career could evolve with the introduction of digital advice platforms.

"The career doesn't look the same as it did 20 years ago," he says. "The constant here is change. We are looking ahead to try to imagine the future. This was an exercise in that. Whether or not it was exactly right, that remains to be seen."

In meeting with would-be CFPs across colleges, Keller adds he often heard the view that they wanted to practice advice, and not act as sales. "We shouldn’t assume that everyone wants to run a traditional advisor practice," he says.

Vanguard spokesman David Hoffman says that the firm will have 450 advisors working for its Personal Adviser Services by the end of the year.

New clients work with the same advisor during the onboarding process, but can be served by any PAS advisor once enrolled. Clients at $500,000 or more are assigned a dedicated advisor.

"We put a lot of effort into career development, promoting from within and providing training and credentials," Hoffman says. "Our compensation is competitive with others in the industry, but it’s our policy not to talk specifics."

Schwab and Personal Capital were also queried about the career development opportunities for advisors serving their hybrid robo clients.

Schwab did not have responses, while Personal Capital deferred comment, stating it did not view its hybrid platform as a call center.

FPPad blog founder Bill Winterberg says a comparison of Schwab and Vanguard's hybrid service to Personal Capital was uneven, partly because it charges 89 basis points.

"Their revenues can support a more realistic client/advisor ratio," Winterberg says. "Plus, not all their advisors have the CFP certification."

'A WANNA-BE'

Winterberg is less enthusiastic about the prospects for advisors that work from a call center, concerned about advisor burn-out and churn from working in such an environment.

There's also the lack of a real relationship that will hamper an advisor's professional development, suggests Tim Welsh, president of industry consulting firm Nexus Strategy.

"Being an advisor in a call center is like being a wanna-be chef cooking at a fast-food diner," Welsh says. "You get to make the food, but the quality of your ingredients prevents you from the glory of seeing your clients truly enjoy the meal.

"Financial planning is a relationship development process — clients share their most intimate feelings about money and what they want to accomplish in life, their big goals and objectives. Doing it over the phone or online takes away that, so I don’t think the career path in a call center is sustainable, or interesting."

There's also the risk that if the call center model grows, big wealth management firms could save costs by offshoring such advice roles.

"It is plausible for that mass market client," says Phil Cunningham, CEO of Advicent, which develops financial planning software for advisors and enterprises. "But I think for that segment it will be totally digital delivery before we see it shift to India."

Cunningham doesn't see CFPs staffing advice call centers as the hybrid model evolves anyways, but rather help desk-style support that will direct clients to advisors for actual advice queries.

Keller says ultimately, more investors will get access to advisors, which is a good thing.

Winterberg agrees, but sees other models developing also for advisors to engage clients.

"If that means call centers then so be it, but I'm optimistic that systems and technology can be put in place to connect customers with the planners that are best suited to interact with the customer," he says.

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Suleman Din

Suleman Din

Suleman Din is technology editor of American Banker and Financial Planning. Follow him on Twitter at @sulemandn.