As we enter the digital age, technology has been a driving force in putting pressure on many industries, taking any goods or services that could possibly be commoditized and driving their profit margins down to a sliver. In recent years, many have wondered whether financial planning may soon be impacted in a similar manner, especially given how software like TurboTax decimated the profitability of tax preparation services. After all, the commoditization has arguably already begun for some parts of the financial services industry, as costs have plummeted for trade execution and index investing and many software packages offer the ability to perform relatively sophisticated financial planning projections entirely for free.
Yet the reality is that financial planning itself may remain remarkably resistant to commoditization for the foreseeable future, for the simple reason that financial planning is incredibly customized and unique to the needs and complex circumstances of the client, and outcomes can still vary greatly depending on the expertise and the skillset of the planner (unlike tax preparation, where ultimately the outcomes are exactly the same because all clients and their preparers both have to follow the same IRS guidelines). In fact, arguably the greatest challenge in financial planning is not that services are so nearly identical from one planning firm to the next that the only competitive factor is price (as occurs in commoditized markets), but instead that the planning experience is still so different amongst firms that consumers struggle to determine which planner would be the best fit in the first place!
Nonetheless, the caveat is that for advisors who have linked the profitability and success of their businesses to a commoditized service, such as charging a fee just to gather data and do financial planning software projections, or charge an assets-under-management fee just to provide strategic passive asset allocation using index funds, the pressure is on to step up and deliver a greater value. Ironically, in the end that means not only is financial planning not being commoditized in a manner that makes financial planners irrelevant, but the reality may be that it’s about to get even more competitive with more financial planners than ever, as an increasing number of advisors realize the components of what they provide have become commoditized and that they must step up to provide a deeper, higher quality of financial planning advice and services for their businesses to survive and thrive!