The Speed of Advice in the Financial Planning Process

Technology is never static, especially in our current business operating environment of accelerating rates of change. As the chief tool for innovation, tech is now on an iterative journey between technologists and their endpoint clients. The goal is to continuously address challenges and opportunities as they develop and provide practical solutions that are targeted, easy to use, and faster in delivery.

The need for speed and the ability to deliver engaging, real-time advice in client conversations can be a key differentiator in our hyper-competitive financial marketplace. With the ever-growing data explosion and social media noise that clients have to deal with, information overload reduces decision quality and breeds inaction. It can be a great motivator and a much-needed solution for clients if technology can be wielded to clarify and direct a clear course of action.

To get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how a FinTech company creates the next evolution of their product to address these issues, we reached out to Institute member Adam Holt, CEO & Founder of Asset-Map – an award-winning client engagement and financial visualization software for financial planners. We asked probing questions to better understand how they go about designing a better experience for advisors and their clients.

Hortz: What was your motivation behind your decision to rethink financial planning?

Holt: Even though it is starting to happen, Asset-Map’s vision was not originally to revolutionize the financial planning and engagement process. That is not to say that we are completely reinventing the wheel, it just turns out that the ‘wheel’ used in financial planning for years is often too big for the road most professionals drive in modern client engagements.

Today, we all want nimble, fast, stylish, clear, and easy-to-use tools. So, the timing was right to scale out a redesigned wheel for the modern terrain. What we are really talking about is compressing the financial planning process by removing the bulk and intimidation felt at the consumer level, as well as decluttering the unneeded content and capability at the advisor level to try to produce more effective conversations.  All of this ultimately helps facilitates better conversations around making financial decisions.

As an artist who always tries to communicate more effectively, I recognize that the fact-finding process and getting to know a client was where most of the AH-HA moments happened during the financial planning process. In other words, the most important aspects of the profession include understanding who is important to the household, why they made certain decisions historically, what they care about today, what is clearly missing from their financial repertoire, and whether they are on track for their major goals. 

This interaction is what I refer to as the “point-of-advice”. Like many other businesses consider the point-of-sale to be the most important environment to control or influence, I happen to think the critical point-of-advice is the moment when two people sit down together and agree to make changes that serve their household’s agenda for the better. Making that engagement experience faster and more effective is really what we are doing.

Hortz: Can you share with us the research and development process that went into designing this next-level experience for your users?

Holt: We have field-tested Asset-Map for the past 15 years in printed report environments, digital presentations, interactive Smart Boards, screen sharing, and mobile devices in order to get a clear idea of how financial professionals interact with their clients in the planning and engagement process. There are a couple of things that really stand out from that research over time. Many of those insights center around behavioral finance and yet others are simply nuances of societal norms, an advisor’s technology infrastructure, basic human needs, and education.

One example of that research that I find especially interesting is how the current consumers of advice were taught in a traditional classroom. In these early developmental years, an instructor stood in front of a board and educated their seated students based upon visualizations they drew with chalk on a blackboard. That historical authority figure for most clients is subliminal, and the credibility given to an educator who has no other agenda than to help their student learn is a disarming and altruistic memory for many. 

An interesting aspect of Asset-Map is that one of the highest satisfaction responses we get from a client engagement is an advisor standing and presenting a client's Asset-Map Report interactively at a digital board and educating them on existing strategies while communicating from a frame of teaching. Like students that are present in a class to learn, that embedded response for engagement gets triggered if the visualization and the topic are both interactive and consumable.

Alternatively, if the “teacher/advisor” gets too advanced in the typical financial planning tables, charts, and graphs, then we see the same expected response in students that start shutting down when the technical knowledge exceeds their interest or capacity. And this later example is how most financial planning loses the client through the jargon and a lack of technical familiarity. It’s no wonder why most consumers of financial advice complain of lack of transparency and complex communication.

The takeaway is that any presentation is going to be more effective if it engages the viewer and attempts to educate by connecting what a client does not understand - with what they do understand. Visualization of financial relationships continues to be a force multiplier in engagement.

Hortz: How do you design your software to deliver advice faster? How do you design for speed?

Holt: The key to delivering advice faster is to get to the point faster. And there is nothing that speaks to opportunities to both fix current financial decisions and fill current gaps in the financial picture than an actual image of a households’ details and prior decisions. We have noticed that when a visualization of all of the facts is organized on the screen, the outliers cannot hide.

In other words, the fact that somebody is underinsured is not lost on page 57 of 80. It is literally on the screen in front of everyone to see. The realization that someone does not have enough emergency reserves is clearly apparent, and the fact that somebody has too many accounts in multiple places (likely being overcharged and undermanaged), is not obscure when there is an Asset-Map in front of everyone revealing those truths. So, the first aspect of speed comes down to removing the information obscurities to address the real issues.

The second component of speed is around designing a financial planning process that puts the conclusions first and the critical variables that influence that result mathematically right next to the conclusions. This is important because the conclusions of a financial plan, whether somebody is under-saved, underinsured, or under-invested, will likely inspire some form of client action and reallocation of capital. 

That conclusion on financial action is what people are seeking to get confidence around making a decision. If we do not understand or cannot agree on the variables and underlying assumptions of that math, because they are hidden or not easy enough to alter, we do not get a collective agreement that the conclusion is actually legitimate. So, the key to financial planning and speed is to make sure that it is a negotiated agreement on the assumptions and what to do about it by having transparency around the few levers we might actually be able to influence including return expectations, mortality, and spending to name a few.  Making it easier to agree on the assumptions is the key to technical credibility in the forecasting process and speed to conclusion. 

Hortz: How does providing a visual platform for efficiently organizing client finances AND relationships in one place also help advisors?

Holt: Every professional advisor has a standard of Know Your Client (KYC) regardless of regulatory or suitability requirements. Over the years, many financial professionals have kept notes on understanding their clients on a yellow pad or an organizer, yet only the required data needed to open accounts or do financial planning made it into a scalable practice management solution like CRM. This has left a huge data hole in most practices and the bulk of the real client management, rather relationship, remains inside the head of advisors. 

I think the real strategic value of capturing all household data in a system is twofold - firm collaboration and simple rich communication. So where is this going? I hope you are asking yourself what are the highest-end advisors providing today to the ultra-wealthy that most mass-market advisors are not? 

Two things come to mind: Proactive expert collaboration across disciplines on behalf of their clients and simple-rich communication that saves everyone time in the decision process. That requires a highly technical representation of relationships and yet a consumable output by the least sophisticated (or interested). An experience that can put the eyes of an investment advisor, insurance professional, attorney, estate counsel, and financial planner literally on the same page for the benefit of their collective client’s household. 

Putting it all together - that is what Asset-Map really does at its core – provides a single, visual, financial picture that multiple professionals can immediately interpret and collaborate around based on their unique skill and experience in order to identify actions needed right now. Enabling the financial firm of the future to collaborate internally and with clients will necessitate getting household data into a singular sharable platform and will prove to be one of the highest and best revenue-producing activities in practices to come

Hortz: Besides the technology, you developed a highly customizable client engagement process that advisors can follow. What are the benefits of that kind of communication style?

Holt: The honest truth is that we approached Asset-Map from the most basic of needs of the advisor to understand the clients’ situation and quickly assess where they need to take the conversation based upon what the advisors interpreted. There were many times when we just said, “Can I just see all the facts on one page?”, and once we saw those facts, we asked ourselves, “Can I just see if we're on track for major goals on one page?”.

The reason is because that is the most empathetic approach to what the core challenge is in financial planning. It is taking a very complex, interconnected, and intertwined set of problems and trying to make a decision about what actions to take (or not take) based upon different data, competing needs, capital scarcity, and the risk of being wrong. The challenge of making financial planning decisions is already complicated enough, a financial planning solution should not be equally as complicated.

Traditional financial planning and engagement tools tend to focus on the mathematical calculation engines that show capital over time. However, we know from experience in the field advising real humans that this is not actually where professionals add their value. Where they add value is in the confidence they provide to their clients, which is evident by their competence revealed by their willingness to ask good questions, educate, and help make more sound decisions.

Understanding this nuance is why Asset-Map has achieved such explosive adoption. Once advisors see Asset-Map and what we can do, they most often respond with, “Thank you - this is the way I think” or “I've been doing the same thing on a yellow pad for years.”

Hortz: Any other thoughts or points you would like to share with advisors on why they should be positioning themselves around this theme of the speed of advice?

Holt: I’ll answer that with what clients of advice really want to say to their professionals: “No one has time to read your thoughtfully technical 40-page report. You are lucky if I get past page two of my statements. I am sure they are all very interesting for you - congratulations. Now tell me what they mean and what we should be doing in my interests right now. I have ten other things that are priorities today and instead of putting myself last (like I tend to do), I am hiring a financial advisor to help me make better decisions, execute them, and occasionally bring relevant ideas to my table without me having to ask or waiting a year until our review meeting. I want someone who understands me, my family, all my financial decisions and is willing to be on my team for the whole household. My critical need is to communicate clearly and effectively with me and those that are important to me at our collective “level” of financial skill. Can you do that?”

We welcome you to visit our website to learn more about our visual technology platform and explore some of our specialized advisor services including webinars, practice management blog, training support, customer stories, and quarterly bootcamps.

Related: Delivering Financial Planning in 30 Seconds with Adam Holt