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Robo-advisers are struggling to find customers and one explanation is that people prefer the human touch when getting financial help.

But who are these humans we turn to for advice in understanding the complexities of investing, retirement and other matters? A new study from the industry consulting firm Dalbar Inc. shows that a lot of them are just salespeople, who want to sell mutual funds and guaranteed investment certificates.

Brilliant people – smart, prepared, sympathetic and insightful – work in the financial planning and the investment advice worlds. But they’re outnumbered by legions of people who either by personal choice or corporate edict have made it a priority to sell, not advise. Robo-advisers beat these product-sellers any day of the week, month or year.

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For insights into what you’re getting when you see a human adviser, let’s take a look at Dalbar’s analysis of how major financial institutions serve people who want help with retirement planning. Dalbar had 192 mystery shoppers call their bank and ask for an appointment, which means the banks had the opportunity to put their best foot forward.

Royal Bank of Canada aced the test – 83 per cent of the mystery shoppers who went there for a retirement discussion saw someone with either the certified financial planner (CFP) or personal financial planner (PFP) designation. At the other four Big Five banks, only between 13 and 43 per cent of interactions were with a CFP or PFP.

If not an accredited planner, then who? “People who have the accreditation to sell mutual funds,” said Anita Lo, vice-president of the Canadian practice for Dalbar.

The relevance of proper planning accreditation is that it brings a higher level of customer satisfaction. RBC achieved an overall score of 80.3 per cent, compared with 70.2 per cent for the other Big Five banks.

You get a sense of how all the banks view people asking for help with retirement in looking at the kinds of documents they asked the mystery shoppers to bring with them to their in-branch consultations. Investment statements were requested 61 per cent of the time, while mortgage and credit card statements were requested just 12 to 8 per cent of the time, respectively.

If you’re heavily in debt, a good planner will tell you to hold up on investing and pay down your borrowings. Ms. Lo said some bank staff focused on investment statements so they could argue for money from other financial firms be transferred to their bank.

“With one or two institutions, they said, ‘Show me the money right now and once you move it over we’ll look at the whole pie,’ ” she said.

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My colleagues Tim Kiladze and Clare O’Hara recently wrote about the problems that robo-advisers are having in building a profitable business. The economics of robo-advice are precarious because only a small number of people have been willing to give them a try. Robos collectively have $8-billion in assets, less than half the amount invested in just the RBC Canadian Dividend mutual fund alone.

Robos may also have been overhyped and need more time to build their franchise. Observers say the problem is that robos are struggling against the desire many people have to talk to real people about their money rather than using an interface that works primarily online. But even when it emphasizes advice over sales, the investment industry still effectively slights people of modest means to focus on high-net-worth accounts.

Robos are in no way a universal solution to your need for financial help. They aren’t generally geared to assess how ready you are for retirement, or if you should forget about investment this year and pound down your debts. But if you need help building an investment portfolio for a goal such as retirement, they are an excellent option.

Robos will design a portfolio for you and manage it on a continuing basis for between 0.25 per cent and 0.5 per cent of your account holdings. Robos generally use exchange-traded funds, which have minimal fees of their own. All in, you get a firm hand guiding your investments at a very reasonable cost.

Robos may some day add online financial planning to their répertoire. Meantime, you can partner your robo portfolio with a fee-for-service financial planner, who charges an hourly or flat rate and isn’t compensated through the sale of investment products or advice.

Or, you can always get some retirement help from your bank. Be sure to bring your investment statements when you go.

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