Future of Investing
Why robo-adviser Betterment is letting all customers access human advice
- Robo-adviser Betterment is now making human advice available to all customers via its mobile app.
- The company may need to manage expectations from customers who want immediate responses to questions, said one analyst.
Betterment was an early pioneer in the use of automated technology to manage investment portfolios. Now, it's letting all its customers access human advice -- a feature previously only available to customers who had invested at least $100,000. Garrett Oakley, a certified financial planner at Betterment, said the company wanted to let customers get financial advice in the most convenient way. Customers will be able to pose questions through a chat bubble, and one of the company's 12 licensed financial advisers will respond within 24 hours, he said. "Every customer wants a different level of interaction with a human," he said. "A lot of people like the digital platform and don’t need to talk to a human, but a lot of people want that reassurance." Betterment announced the human-advice feature in its mobile app last week, along with a move from a three-tier to a two-tier service model. Betterment Digital, the company's automated-only offering, has a 0.25 percent annual fee, while Betterment Premium, which offers customers with a $100,000 balance or more unlimited access to human advice, has a 0.4 percent annual fee. The human-advice offering responds to customers wanting to talk to a human being when it comes to complicated questions about money, say analysts. "When customers have a problem that they need and answer for, where do they turn? Ninety percent of the time, it's a phone call or a branch visit," said Emmett Higdon, mobile practice leader at Javelin Strategy and Research. "What Betterment is trying to do is bridge the gap, and this is a great opportunity." Offering human advice is a way to differentiate from competitors, said Denise Valentine, senior analyst at Aite Group. Other companies with digital wealth management platforms like Charles Schwab and SoFi have also begun letting users of those products get advice from a human being. Getting answers can take time, though, which may be a source of friction for some customers. "The consumer expectation in the mobile channel today is for a real-time response -- it's like watching the dots flash [while waiting for a response]," said Higdon. "If I'm sitting down to think about my investments, and I need advice, it's a throwback to have to wait up to 24 hours for a response." Still, Oakley said the service is gaining traction among customers, with 2,000 questions received in the first week. He said Betterment will continue to test the technology and make improvements over time. "That's part of working at a startup -- we're always out to improve and find the most efficient way to deliver the best experience for the customer," he said.