For bank advisors, the question isn't whether robos will be coming to their banks. The question is when.

Sophie Schmitt, a senior analyst with research and advisory firm Aite Group, anticipates that banks will start rolling out digital wealth management offers as early as this year.

Banks are looking at automated advice providers, newcomers such as Betterment, Wealthfront and other startups that have taken the industry by storm, she says. The so-called "robo advisors" pick portfolios for customers, rebalance their accounts and do tax-loss harvesting at a fraction of the fees that traditional, live advisors charge for the same service.

With strong wealth management departments and investment management research, banks are thinking they can borrow a page from the robo providers' playbook. They're thinking, says Schmitt, "we can do that too. Let's get in on that game."

Robo Lite

Advisors needn't worry, however. Banks aren't planning to offer what Schmitt calls a "tech-only robo solution," cutting traditional advisors out of the business. They'll be taking a "robo lite" approach, meaning they'll combine digital capability coupled with advice that's still delivered by an advisor.

"I'm not talking about a bank throwing out a Wealthfront-type solution online," says Schmitt. What banks are considering are "client-facing solutions that will enhance the advisor and client relationship," while making the solutions "more automated and efficient," she says.

Indeed, the new technology may be key to luring young clients, who analysts say are flocking to robo providers in droves. Investors in their 20s and 30s favor the mix of technology and automated advice that robo platforms offer, says Schmitt. "They're neither self-directed nor want to depend on a financial advisor for everything," she explains.

Schmitt expects banks to offer customers the ability to open managed accounts online, an option that banks don't currently offer. She anticipates that the managed accounts will be backed by advice through advisors in branches or over the phone, much like Vanguard's new Personal Advisor Services program, which the firm is rolling out.

Grant Easterbrook, an analyst at Corporate Insight, agrees with her prediction. "I think it's something that a lot of the big banks are thinking about, especially since they have that captive audience of younger, relatively less affluent customers," he says, referring to robo platforms that manage accounts automatically.

Keeping Clients In-House

Advisors can use robo technology to attract prospects who don't yet have the assets to warrant a full-service relationship but who will one day in the future, Easterbrook explains. An advisor, for example, eyeing a prospective client with high earning potential – a lawyer, let's say, who hasn't yet made partner – can place the prospect in an online, low-cost managed account and keep them in-house. When their asset levels rise and their needs become more complex, the advisor can bring them on as full-service clients.

Robo platforms make sense for advisors who have prospects "on their radar screen who they know maybe in the future will be wealthy enough to be worth their time but aren't quite there just yet," says Easterbrook.

Guarded Stance

Despite their advantages, banks are guarded about the new automated account management platforms. Bank of the West, which launched an online brokerage platform that linked customers' banking and investment accounts in May of 2013, says it believes strongly in personal, one-on-one relationships. While the bank is monitoring automated services, it doesn't have immediate plans to come out with robo tech, either by building it or partnering with a firm that can. "This definitely is something we want to keep on the radar, but it isn't something that we set our sights on today and have a project plan laid out for," says Jeff Hoffman, senior vice president and head of Bank of the West's private client advisor team.

Likewise, Webster Private Bank doesn't see a place for robo technology in the private banking space where personalized assistance and tailored service are valued. "A robo advisor is basically somebody who's reading from a script and is going to be giving very limited and canned advice," says Daniel FitzPatrick, head of Webster Private Bank. Robo tech is more a concern for discount brokers and more transactional-oriented businesses, he says.

Other banks, however, are forging ahead with the new technology. U.S. Bank, for example, is having discussions with a host of "enabling technology" providers, according to Mark Jordahl, president of U.S. Bancorp Wealth Management. "We think partnering with technology providers that have developed promising technology is what our future will look like," he says.

Still, U.S. Bank will always be advisor-led, Jordahl says, with robo tech being merely a tool to help advisors be more effective. "The winning platform is a combination of technology and advisor and that's where we're headed," he says of robo technology models in general.

Whichever robo platform it and other banks choose, "banks need to understand that it's not just about slapping digital tech onto their existing services," says Aite Group's Schmitt. "It's about how to use technology to give clients what they want, which is not just technology. They want advice."

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