I am a lifelong champion of great financial advisors. I’ve reassured myself for years that all technological “innovations” allow the best of those advisors to free up more time to spend with their clients, doing the essential work machines cannot do. I tell top advisors from the stage, in columns like this, and now by videoconference that they have nothing to worry about from the robos. Their role and their margins are secure.

But I’m watching profound change take place in how clients buy things—including their financial services—and we all need to understand that the shift is here. And it’s getting stronger and more commonplace and becoming more of a threat to unprepared advisors and their companies.

For example, I recently acquired insurance for a business I own. I got two referrals from very trusted professionals who both worked directly with the agents they recommended. I heard from both in a fairly timely way. But both proceeded to fumble from there. The first sent me a confidential financial statement meant for another client. And then sent an application suitable only for a financial advisory firm, which is not my business.

The second professional set up a video call for a date when I said I wouldn’t be available. Though he acknowledged that in an e-mail, he still set the wrong date and then chased me down to find out why I wasn’t on the call. At this point, it had been more than a week, and another professional colleague told me to check out Hiscox business insurance (Hiscox.com). Within 10 minutes, I had my policies. No fuss. No paper. No meetings. Done.

Now, I’m a pretty loyal guy. I’ve had the same primary life insurance agent since 1985. The same property/casualty agent for 20 years. The same barber since 1990, and the same dentist since ’95. Well, you get it. I assumed I needed professional help for a product I don’t understand, and I was ready and willing to pay for the advice. But the experience with a digital guide was easy, self-explanatory and quick, and I would do it again instead of using an agent. Who knew?

We are all living, working and studying differently since March, and as far as I can tell, people have adjusted to this new normal. Many businesses have been remarkably creative in making it easier for customers to purchase items and services. A neighbor of mine over age 60 was proud of herself for being able to buy a new car completely online.

There are restaurants I now support and others I don’t because of how well they’ve pivoted and responded in protecting and serving their customers. Today, there is now a stark contrast between businesses and professionals that are truly customer-focused and others that just don’t get it—or won’t.

Let’s apply this shift to the world of financial advice. A retirement “reset” is underway in the U.S., with millions of Americans rethinking their retirement, perhaps delaying it or otherwise adjusting the date, and realizing they may not have enough security and protection in their retirement accounts. According to a just-released Alliance for Lifetime Income-Kiplinger survey, a staggering 70% of Americans say the pandemic has made them more pessimistic about their retirement plans, and almost 80% of people in their 50s say they would like more protected lifetime income in retirement.

But sadly, the customers lack focus, and there’s a disconnect between them and their financial advisors. While only 14% of advisors think their clients are highly interested in protected lifetime income, 42% of consumers say they are, according to a recent study by Cannex, a retirement product pricing data provider, and Greenwald & Associates, a market research firm.

We also hear that too many financial advisors are not reaching out to clients, not using video and not adding new capabilities like digital advice tools. One area of special concern is the whole world of “protection” products. Too much paper. Old systems. I was frustrated recently because it is taking days or weeks to acquire three annuities I’m buying for longevity protection. We can do better.

The financial advice industry overall is lagging in its response to client needs. For way too long we have worked mostly on a “best efforts” basis. We invest for our clients with a view to the “long term” and justify our position with capital markets theory and white papers. We have history on our side but are too dependent on our left brain. Our understanding and empathy for the human condition of anxiety—created by market volatility, fears of running out of money, health-care costs—is low. We forecast potential returns but without any guarantees. We seldom talk about the impact of taxes, yet taxes are often the No. 1 expense for our clients. Even less often we acknowledge the role of health and health-care costs, which is the largest single expense and the No. 1 concern of our clients, with the fear of running out of money coming right after that.

We say we are wealth managers but often provide only investment products. A generational tidal wave of retiring baby boomers is going to hold us to a higher standard of care, of specificity, of transparency—and responsibility. Clients have their own idea of what a Reg BI or fiduciary rule should say, and they are mostly not lawyers. The best advisors are ready and have already figured it out. They are making up for burdensome regulations and procedural quicksand and leading the way toward real client care and service for the rest of us.

It is annoyingly trite to reference Amazon and Apple as standard bearers of fierce customer care and simplicity. But they are no longer alone in the drive to satisfy customers with the ease of doing business. The world of financial planning, especially planning for decumulation and a client’s income, is and always will be complex, but if you don’t have an “EASY” button, you’d better be working on one.

We are witness to a new era that will eliminate, en masse, the providers of anything that puts too much work on the buyer. It’s important to also recognize that these leaders of customer satisfaction are seldom the cheapest. I must admit I have no idea how much my E&O and general liability policies cost at other providers. Frankly, it didn’t matter. I had a time crunch for a client, and that was that. The price seemed reasonable. I was served well. And it was easy. Understanding and putting our clients’ needs first will result in a winner-takes-all endgame for the most successful advisors among us.    

Steve Gresham is the chairman and CEO of Whealthcare Solutions Inc. He is also the managing partner of Next Chapter, an industry initiative dedicated to better execution of retirement advice, sponsored by the Money Management Institute, the Execution Project LLC and Financial Advisor magazine. And he is the senior education advisor to the Alliance for Lifetime Income. He was formerly head of Fidelity’s Private Client Group.

To read more stories , click here