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The lessons of virtual work will outlast the pandemic

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Charles Failla thought he was pretty good at keeping in touch with clients — after all, he’d been principal of Sovereign Financial Group since 1999.

Then COVID-19 came along.

“We’ve ramped up our client outreach,” Failla says. “We did our first webinar, which we’ve never done before — and received [an] overwhelmingly positive response from clients.”

By contrast, Kevin Burkle, a planner in Jacksonville, Florida, who began his own practice in January, was already on an almost entirely virtual footing with clients.

The altered reality caused by the coronavirus has caused financial planners across the country to depend more than ever on virtual technology to connect with their clients. But how big an adjustment that entails varies wildly among firms. Some say they’re finding virtual tools more useful than they expected and will continue using them when the pandemic ends. Some already run virtual practices and say the pandemic is confirming their choices. And a smaller, third group, say they plan to abandon virtual connections with clients as soon as in-person meetings are safe again.

“If someone lives in the same town, I’ll grab a coffee, but business happens virtually,” says planner Kevin Burkle.

Failla’s maiden webinar he says, resembled “a state of the union,” in which he gave clients an overview of the markets and a refresher course on his firm’s process for handling big market moves. Participants used Zoom’s chat function to ask questions, which Failla then answered for the whole group.

Before this extraordinary moment in time, Failla regularly held in-person gatherings at restaurants and clubs. Those events might attract 30 clients. By contrast, he says, the webinar drew an audience of 100.

That number probably reflected clients’ feelings of urgency, but might also hinge on the fact that webinars are easier to attend. There’s no need to dress up, hire a babysitter or leave home.

Already virtual
By contrast, Kevin Burkle, who spent 10 years as a workplace planning and advice rep with Fidelity Investments before starting his own firm, conducts meetings almost entirely digitally with clients.

“If someone lives in the same town, I’ll grab a coffee, but business happens virtually,” he says.

Burkle says his clients share his preference for online conversations. “I target younger healthcare professionals, and they treat their time off as precious,” he says — too precious to spend traveling to meet a financial planner.

Today we talked about the fear people have that the market won’t recover. Next week, we’ll talk about Social Security strategies. We’ll keep this up with a different planning topic every week as long as this mess goes on.
Linda Erickson, Erickson Advisors

Meeting virtually also helps take some of the stress out of conversations about money. “Many people feel anxiety around their finances, and I don’t feel like coming into an office and talking to a guy with CNBC streaming in the background helps that,” Burkle says, adding that he appreciates the collaboration that screen sharing allows. “It’s more difficult to look over someone’s shoulder in an office with a planner and two spouses.”

Amy Shepard, a planner at Sensible Money in Scottsdale, Arizona, says most clients found the firm online in the first place, so they’re already comfortable using the Internet. A few, mostly older, clients have trouble with technology. For those clients, Shepard says, “we stick with phone calls.”

‘Transcend this time’
Linda Erickson, co-owner of Erickson Advisors in North Greensboro, North Carolina, says that the crisis has caused the firm to take their fluency in various kinds of technology to keep in touch with clients.

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In more normal times, the firm has a quarterly call about investments. Now, however, they’ve begun a weekly Zoom meeting. “Today we talked about the fear people have that the market won’t recover,” Erickson says. “Next week, we’ll talk about Social Security strategies. We’ll keep this up with a different planning topic every week, as long as this mess goes on.”

The company’s planners were already good at holding virtual conferences with remote clients or couples in two different locations. Now, Erickson says, “we’ve gotten very good at it. That’s something that will transcend this time.”

Erickson says that she’s been surprised at how well her staff has worked from home, and that she is inclined to let employees continue to spend at least some of their time in home offices after the pandemic passes.

A few clients have trouble with technology. For them, “We stick with phone calls,” says planner Amy Shepard.

In the past, she says, “we haven’t been thrilled about having people work from home. When people go home, they do at-home things. But different people work differently, and if they work more successfully and productively off site for half the week, we’re going to be okay with that.”

Never after dark
But for some planners, the virtual reality forced on them by the health crisis has only reinforced their preference for in-person meetings with clients.

That’s the case with Kashif Ahmed, who owns American Private Wealth in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Ahmed is staunch in his defense of face-to-face meetings, citing multiple benefits.

“Reading body language and getting vibes isn’t possible remotely,” he says. “I’ve had people reveal things to me that they might never have mentioned if we weren’t meeting in person. Being with someone lets you decide if you like someone, if you trust them, or even if you don’t like them.”

In-person conversations also let Ahmed gauge how serious clients are about planning their finances. “I never hold any meetings after dark, and they all end by 6 p.m.,” he says. “If you can get people to come to you when they are at work, that tells you that they are serious about their financial planning. Meeting people after dark, on the weekend, at a kitchen table, isn’t as serious.”

For all his well-reasoned arguments, Ahmed admits to some trepidation on the coronavirus’s lasting effects on advisor-client contact. One factor, he says, will be how long the pandemic lasts, and whether clients will come to rely on video chats.

“My fear is they might never want to meet in person,” Ahmed says.

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