Betterment ranks as one of the high-profile success stories coming out of the robo advisory market revolution, however changes are coming to the company’s robotics-based business model.
Since 2010, Betterment has efficiently leveraged automated investing, relying on algorithms and automation technology to manage client investment portfolios.
Increasingly, that success story is being rewritten to include actual human advisors to the Betterment line-up. That scenario unfolds as the company accedes to customer demands for human interaction, and as it seeks to cut into the market share of Wall Street giants like Schwab and Merrill Lynch, who have built hybrid-robo investing platforms of their own.
Betterment’s a new initiative enables clients to buy individual advice packages, steered by “personalized advice” from its roster of licensed financial experts. That follows a steady pattern of Betterment leveraging the expertise of human advisors, an option it’s more affluent clients currently have (clients must have a minimum balance of $100,000 for unlimited access to Betterment financial advisors).
The new personalized advice campaign is geared toward smaller-income clients looking for financial help along the various stages of their financial lives. One-time client calls to Betterment will be staffed by a licensed financial expert, who’ll provide guidance on anything from getting married to buying a home to retiring early. Clients will also receive educational tools and an actionable personal financial plan as part of the package.
“We have a unique look at the financial services market, and are seeking to provide support for clients looking for one-off financial advice, which is an unaddressed area of the financial advisory market,” said Joe Ziemer, vice president of communications at Betterment. “We’re seeing cross the board demand from clients who are looking for financial help at a pivotal point in their lives, like paying for college or getting married. With our new roll out, we’re filling that gap in the market place,” he said.
Here’s the new product lineup that Betterment is offering – each package costs $150 to $500 with retirement-oriented advice climbing the higher range of the cost scale.
- Financial Checkup package: For customers who would like a professional review of their investment portfolio and situation.
- College Planning package: For parents or guardians who are looking to send their children to college in the next 5-18 years.
- Marriage Planning package: For engaged or newly-married couples to get advice around combining assets and accounts.
- Retirement Planning package: For anyone who has started saving towards retirement and wants to see if they are on track and investing correctly for their goals.
Betterment says the move toward flat-fee financial advice from real money managers is due to customer demand. That’s a good call, investors said.
“I’m a full service advisory person who just started dipping my toes in the robo investing arena,” said Holly Wolf, director of customer engagement at SOLO Laboratories, in Reading, Pa. “We keep our Roth IRAs, my husband’s IRA and our existing savings with a financial advisor, but as we collect more assets, we’re put them in a robo fund. We just can’t justify paying fees on money that is just being parked.”
Even so, Wolf isn’t ready to let go of her family’s money manager.
“Our advisor looks at our whole financial picture,” she said. “He tells me to rebalance my 401(k) plan or reviews how much we have in our bank account and may suggest ways to maximize our earnings.”
“Right now, I view a robo account as just another account that is part of our bigger, overall financial picture,” Wolf said.
Trey Robinson, a fintech marketing executive at Theme Communications, in Austin, Texas said, “Betterment was early in the game to automate. Unfortunately for them, that lead is gone now that all the major brokers have built a robo option. They’re also not growing as fast as they need to and acquisition costs are rising.”
“With the major players offering robo advice and a hybrid model Betterment, needed to add humans to compete,” he said.
Filling The Gap
Other industry observers agree, saying access to human advisors is a move the company had to make.
“Betterment has been at the forefront of the robo-advisor industry,” said Roi Tavor, chief executive officer at Nummo, a fintech services firm in Zurich, Switzlerland.
Thanks to customer segmentation and all around cost-cutting in the industry, Betterment is filling a widening gap.
“Due to customer segmentation, most large banks such JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch or Goldman Sachs offer comprehensive human advice services only to customers with account balances in excess of $5 million,” he said. “Anything else no longer appears to be economical.”
Meanwhile, cost-cutting measures are intended to increase efficiency across all segments below the $5 million threshold. “Today, we’re starting to see larger institutions pushing their digital services to clients who would previously be considered core human advice customers,” Tavor said. “For example, UBS recently launched their robo advisor in the U.S. called Advice Advantage. This offering is available to customers with a minimum balance of $250,000.”
Even with a high demand for traditional investment advisors, the pressure on human advisors will continue to rapidly increase, Tavor said.
“However, that’s not so much due to the robo advisors,” he said. “The transformation is predominantly driven by changing customer expectations and the new environment financial institutions are facing.”
Brian O’Connell is a former Wall Street bond trader, and author of the best-selling books, The 401k Millionaire and CNBC’s Guide to Creating Wealth. He’s a regular contributor to major media business platforms. Brian may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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