Automate Your Business, Not Your Relationships

Ask business owners what has made them successful in our industry and you are likely to hear the word “relationships.” It is as much a personal statement as it is a reflection of what they hope their brand conveys to others. Small players play the relationship card well as boutiques, but sometimes struggle to achieve scale or remain cost competitive. Larger players are better structured to support volume, but sometimes struggle to assert true relationship value. It is an ongoing calibration as businesses grow and technologies mature.

Today, it is hard to escape the discussion about the rise of automation. Sure, it has been coming for decades. We have seen it in manufacturing lines as robots have come online to produce faster, consistent, more reliable output. We have all come to rely on the convenience of the almost always available automated banker (the ATM). Today, though, headlines are about more than this. They focus on the extent to which technology is evolving to the point where it is sufficient to automate complex computer or processing tasks previously performed only by trained staff.

The lure of automation has always been functionally two-fold: (1) it reduces the time and cost to the completion of repetitive tasks, and (2) it is an essential element to scale. From a business development perspective, automation can enhance a company’s ability to respond to market opportunities without the risk, cost, effort, and time of growing its team. And business leaders know well that labor can be a real constraint to growth when opportunities develop faster than their company’s ability to recruit, train, develop, and grow people. And that assumes talent is available. Sometimes, it is not.

To some, saving time and money is, itself, the end state of the argument and, from an internal perspective, reliable results and faster and less expensive work is a win. (Remember, automation is not free. There can be substantial investment in the design, authoring, implementation, and management of these systems.) Automation has certainly found its way into the everyday work of retirement plan professionals. It is easy to see its impact on recordkeeping and administration: straight-through-processing programs validate ever-growing volumes of data, while streamlining trading and testing. More and more internal and external client touch points are self-directed, automated processes providing on-demand access to data exchanges, query, and reporting functions. The benefits seem clear: improve timeliness and accuracy while controlling or lowering costs.

As we manage the results, enhanced efficiency becomes its own virtue, but is this metric as well applied to how we serve our clients? Does efficiency in process and platform translate to stronger relationships or better retirement outcomes? That is not as clear. Take the example of robo-advisory services and participant web portals that serve up information and guidance to ever-larger audiences with minimal (or no) human interaction. They provide access to innovative tools and reinforce a brand experience for some users, but that may not drive long-term results, especially if we still fail to reach many, if not most, of those we hope to help.

From a marketing and communications perspective, there is great potential in automating, yet “personalizing,” messages to plan sponsors and plan participants. Contemporary marketing automation platforms make it possible to customize the tone, the frequency, the topics, and even the specific content that best matches what each individual in our audience prefers. It has been possible for many years to segment databases and email lists based on age, participation, account balances, and many other characteristics. The powerful difference today lies in platforms that allow marketers to define complex filtering rules, automate list building, and initiate logic-based, on-demand workflows that deliver the right information to the right audience at the right time in the right way. Together, these actions combine to deliver information that is relevant and timely to each person. That helps develop trust and leads to better engagement. Combine this refined messaging approach with financial wellness, advisory, or other retirement plan offerings and you have the makings of a formidable marketing program.

There is a limitation, though. “Personalized, yet automated” is not the same thing as “personal.” Data-driven and on-demand services and communications may be hugely efficient and ultimately pragmatic when attempting to engage large audiences, but it is not the same thing as listening and learning in the same way a survey is not a good approximation of a conversation.

“Personalized, yet automated” is not the same thing as “personal.”

This discussion is not meant to diminish the argument for automation, as there are many good reasons for businesses to pursue such a path where it enhances value and serves customers. The challenge is to recognize that technology, in and of itself, can enable access to information and services, but is not a replacement for true relationship management. Delivering on that commitment still costs money and time and the investment in real people. It does not scale nearly as well, but it does represent a true point of differentiation between organizations and offerings.

Technology, in and of itself, is not a replacement for true relationship management.

At the end of the day, our challenge is greater than delivering good service to our clients. It is to help them succeed, and we can only do that if we invest in knowing who they are and what they really want and need. That is relationship building. Use that knowledge to feed automation. Then, you have the potential to earn a return on investment on both.

This article was first published by Wolters Kluwer in the Journal of Pension Benefits, Autumn 2017)