The Future of Wealth Management Workflow Automation

Workflow Automation Attracts Advisors and Clients, Cuts Costs and Increases Efficiencies; Machine Learning and Data Capabilities Will Drive Further Innovation

Julius Buchanan, Senior Contributing Editor, Wealth Solutions Report

Among the latest Superbowl commercials was an advertisement for cryptocurrency exchange FTX, where Larry David stars as a recurring historical figure that rejects everything from the wheel to toilets and, of course, FTX.  It’s a lighthearted demonstration of our innate human ability to miss the greatest of innovations.

And it’s certainly a lesson that applies to the wealth management industry and its adoption of workflow management solutions to create more opportunities for operational efficiency and scalable growth.  

One of the biggest hurdles to doing this?  Moving past erroneous assumptions about the basics of the wealth management industry.

WSR Reader Survey Results:  Workflow Automation

Consider the latest WSR Survey on the Future of Workflow Automation. We asked a diverse segment of our readers who are C-suite decision-makers at large independent broker-dealers as well as RIA aggregators whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about workflow automation, using a scale from 1 to 10 (1 meaning “completely disagree” and 10 representing “completely agree”).

Agree to disagree?

The results are interesting, to say the least:

  • Adopting more workflow automation solutions is a top priority this year:  4
  • Adopting more workflow automations is a top priority in the next three years:  7
  • Workflow automation is a back office concern, not a front office concern:  8
  • Workflow automation solutions are “nice to have” but not a “must have”:   7
  • Capturing immediate growth opportunities is more important than driving greater operational efficiencies:  8
  • Firms can create a more digitized advisor and client experience without investing more in workflow automation solutions:  3 

Put simply, some of the biggest challenges to the adoption of more workflow automation solutions across the wealth management space appear to be as follows:  

  • An incomplete understanding of workflow automation as a primarily back office issue
  • The resultant belief that adoption of more workflow automation solutions is something that can be delayed for an extended period of time
  • A perceived “false choice” between capturing immediate growth opportunities versus investing in solutions that drive greater operational efficiencies

At the same time, there seems to be strong consensus among wealth management firm leaders that creating a more digitized advisor and client service experience simply isn’t possible without stepped up investment in workflow automation solutions.

Why are views about the future of workflow automation among C-suite teams of wealth management enterprises so complex, and why are firms having a hard time pulling the trigger on investing in more workflow automation services now?

Overwhelmed by Complexity?

A big part of this comes down to bandwidth for decision-making, and the constant allure of inertia during times of significant industry expansion.

Derek Bruton, Senior Managing Director, Gladstone Group

According to Derek Bruton, Senior Managing Director at Gladstone Group, a wealth management-focused M&A advisory and strategic consulting firm, “Workflow automation firms that cannot insert themselves into the dialogue with an extremely clear and concise message that proves how they will create a straight line to very tangible results will only become part of the deafening roar of complexity.”

In Bruton’s view, “The adoption challenge for many workflow automation solutions is that they require extensive explanations and integration around the CRM or other platforms they are built on.”

“This results in a daunting combination of platform and consultation solutions that must occur for firms and advisors to see the pathway forward to optimal outcomes.  The more complex their message becomes, the more inertia will win the day.”

Redefining the Client Onboarding Experience

Wealth management firms and workflow automation solutions providers should therefore start discussions with one another on recognition of the core table stakes firms and their financial advisors want to achieve these days:  Improving the client onboarding experience.

This is a goal that speaks to both scalable growth and operational efficiency.  

Marc Butler, President and COO, Skience

For the vast majority of wealth management firms, the typical client onboarding process is overdue for improvements that reduce friction, expeditiously dispense with “paperwork” and directly import data to other functions across the client life cycle which streamlines future client interactions, leaving both the advisor and the client feeling satisfied rather than hassled.

Marc Butler, President and COO of Skience, the digital strategy and solutions provider serving broker-dealers, RIAs and other firms in the wealth management space, tells us that “firms often do not understand the end-to-end advisor journey of the client onboarding process. If an advisor must navigate multiple systems during the client onboarding process, it leads to a poor experience and increases the likelihood of errors.”

Though the technology is available, the barrier lies in finding the understanding and motivation to seek out good fintech partners and implement necessary changes. 

To remedy this, Butler recommends fully understanding the onboarding process to “develop a strategy and execution plan to transform those experiences.”

Butler then recommends demonstrating the cost savings through a return-on-investment (ROI) model showing reduced time spent onboarding clients and saved costs over the medium term. Quantifying the impact of improved onboarding processes captures management’s attention, focus and priority.

Show me the money…in savings

Role-Based Presentation of Information

In Derek Bruton’s perspective, “The proliferation of fintech firms that offer workflow automation solutions in our industry is certainly a positive in terms of the range of choices offered to business owners – But only to the extent that their offerings don’t add to the general noise and complexity that decision-makers at firms already wrestle with each day.”

In that sense, Practifi’s focus on presenting information to executives and advisors based on the background or function of the professional could be one of the more groundbreaking approaches in the broader workflow automation space today.

Adrian Johnstone, Co-Founder and President, Practifi

Practifi, a platform provider for wealth institutions, broker-dealers and RIAs, has taken an industry-leading position in presenting workflow data according to function, with apps tailored to management, compliance, client services, marketing and advisors. 

Adrian Johnstone, Co-Founder and President of Practifi, explains that professionals “don’t need to wade through irrelevant information to get to the information that does matter to them.”

According to Johnstone, “Flooding users with irrelevant data creates two problems: One is that they don’t adopt the software, and two, they’re more error-prone because they’re missing pieces of information.”

According to Johnstone, Practifi’s solution is “to take away all the noise of the upstream and downstream parts of the business and allow users to focus through their lens while still being connected to the rest of the firm.”

For instance, compliance officers using traditional methods may react retroactively without the information and resources to fully and efficiently mitigate risk.  

Keep it simple

With workflows presented directly to compliance officers, Johnstone states, “compliance teams can manage, monitor and track compliance obligations quickly and efficiently, while accessing the data they need so they know whether they have met their time-based obligations.”

David Knoch, CEO, Docupace

Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Leveraging Data

Although opportunities for streamlining processes, improving efficiency and reducing costs exist today, the next few years will see continued jumps in productivity and performance as machine learning and data science capabilities develop.

Docupace, a cloud-based fintech digital operations software provider, recently partnered with intelligent automation application provider JIFFY.ai to develop advanced solutions based on artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

According to Docupace’s CEO, David Knoch, “machine learning and robotic process automation are redefining how workflow systems perform tasks for users.” 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will advance workflows in various ways, including connectivity. According to Knoch, connectivity between critical systems will soon be aware. “For example, your CRM system’s workflow for on-boarding a new relationship should be contextually connected and aware of related statuses in other workflow systems.” 

Knoch also tells us that data contained within workflow systems will drive future process improvements. 

“In the future, workflow automation systems will use the volumes of processing data available to them to recognize optimization opportunities and recommend changes that continue to drive business efficiency.”

Sander Ressler, Managing Director, Essential Edge

Voices of Caution

Of course, there are third-party industry consultants who believe workflow automation’s promise and potential remain challenged in certain key areas of the industry with an outsized level of importance, such as compliance supervision.

Sander Ressler, Managing Director of Essential Edge, an outsourced compliance supervision consultancy, said, “Workflow solutions are very good when they are addressing mainstream information.  Where workflow automation fails is when there are outliers that need to be addressed, and compliance and supervision are literally all about the outliers.”

“As far as compliance and supervision goes, workflow automation does a good job of identifying events and processes that are normal.  99% of all business activities are normal.  But I have yet to see any workflow automation solutions that anticipate, address and manage significant outlier situations.”

To illustrate this point, Ressler draws an analogy of a surgery robot designed to perform an appendectomy.  For most patients undergoing this procedure, the robot does a good job.  But for an outlier whose appendix may be located on their other hip, the robot can’t recognize the issue and the attempt to address the issue actually creates significant mistakes with unnecessary patient suffering.  

According to Ressler, “A 1% outlier rate doesn’t sound like a lot but when thousands of business activities are performed daily, not identifying and addressing the 1% can be potentially very costly.  Nothing is unavoidable, but the human factor cannot be totally replaced in a risk management tech-driven workflow automation solution, nor should we try.”

Feeling Left Behind?  Where to Start

Start with small back office changes

Naysayers notwithstanding, most wealth management firms appear likely to more closely explore workflow automation solutions in the next few years.

For firm leaders who feel like the automation ship has sailed without them, it isn’t too late to catch up. 

Docupace’s Knoch advises finding a small to medium opportunity in your back office such as automating Form CRS delivery, rather than starting with overwhelmingly large and complicated functions. 

“Next,” Knoch counsels, “choose a partner who already has a range of solutions you can grow into, rather than a roadmap of hopes and dreams. With a small opportunity and a big partner, you can begin a journey at your pace that over time creates a digital transformation.”

Julius Buchanan, Senior Contributing Editor at Wealth Solutions Report, can be reached at jbuchanan@wealthsolutionsreport.com

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