As stay-at-home orders and remote work became standard fare this year with the Covid-19 crisis, financial advisers hastily familiarised themselves with videoconferencing.
For Barbara Delaney, the principal at StoneStreet Renaissance, one particular video pitch to a prospective client was a nightmare. She says those on the other side kept their cameras off and did not ask questions, which left Ms Delaney’s team speaking for 45 minutes straight. “It was just terrible. Needless to say we did not win that piece of business,” says Ms Delaney, who is on this year’s FT 401 list of leading US retirement advisers.
She is not alone in expressing concern about how to win clients in the current environment — but advisers have found opportunities, too. For some, the positives outweigh the negatives, with at least 25 per cent of advisers on the FT 401 list saying they plan to keep more than a quarter of meetings and presentations remote.
Jessica Espinoza, senior vice-president of retirement plan services at insurance broker NFP, says one benefit of remote communication is that people can be more engaged — and people are now more comfortable in virtual meetings than ever.
Participants have benefited too, she says. Speaking to people in their homes has meant that a spouse can join in if necessary, and that clients are more likely to have their financial paperwork at hand. Advisers also say they have been more productive, with less travel giving extra time to focus on client work and better service, Ms Espinoza says.
This increased efficiency is a “silver lining”, according to Jeff Gratton, managing director and chief marketing officer at SageView Advisory Group. Where a face-to-face meeting might have been followed by hotel checkouts and a trip to the airport, videoconferencing allows everyone to move quickly from one meeting to another, he says.
Given the upsides, Mr Gratton and Ms Espinoza — both of whom are on this year’s FT 401 list — see aspects of more traditional methods continuing, especially for long-term clients. There may be initial in-person meetings, Mr Gratton says, but routine meetings will still be held virtually for clients when there is already a relationship in place.
For Ms Delaney, the main benefit of remote business has been a deeper connection with clients and plan participants in one-on-one education meetings. She says they seem more comfortable speaking via videoconference or on the phone, which has meant more open conversations.
Gaining new business is still a challenge, with nearly 15 per cent of FT 401 advisers saying that none of their meetings with prospective plan sponsors will remain remote.
Like Ms Delaney, Mr Gratton has found that trying to win a client remotely is an uphill battle. Of three attempts, he says, only one was successful. With the other two, SageView was trying to take business from an existing adviser. “If we’re all on the same playing field, where there’s not an incumbent, they’re hiring an adviser for the first time or something like that . . . I think we have a better shot,” he says. “But if there is an in-person relationship built already, that’s tough to overcome in a virtual meeting.”
There will also always be individuals who are uncomfortable with receiving investment advice remotely, Mr Gratton says, and a nagging concern is that virtual business could result in “an inability to build those deeper relationships”.
Ms Delaney agrees. While plan participants are the exception, she finds generally that “Zoom is terrible for trying to develop relationships” — an observation confirmed by the failed pitch this year. It is true that a previous Zoom meeting resulted in new business, which Ms Delaney credits to a strong referral, but she would like to see the inability to meet face-to-face consigned to history. “We’re really starting to miss it, and I’m not alone,” Ms Delaney says of physical business engagement. “Enough is enough.”
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