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Inside Information E-Column: Permanent Changes Due to the Pandemic

In a recent group email, I asked the Inside Information community to tell me what they think has changed permanently—in their lives and in our profession—as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

There were a lot of responses, which again tells me how lucky I am to be able to ask these questions and receive back the wisdom of the crowds.  As to the “permanently changed” question, there seems to be broad agreement that remote client meetings are here to stay—but there were some interesting differences in interpretation as to what, exactly, that means going forward.

Virtual is replacing in-person interactions

The most obvious change was cited by most people who responded to my message: they were forced to switch to Zoom calls with clients, and clients adapted and even, sometimes, preferred meeting remotely.  “We’re seeing greater client acceptance of not meeting face-to-face quarterly or semiannually,” says Dick Hewitt, of Praetorian Guard in Carmel, CA—while at the same time, client interactions have become more frequent, opportunistic and personal.

Jamie Milne, of Milne Financial Planning in St. Johnsbury, VT, goes so far as to wonder if Zoom meetings might be equal to or superior to the face-to-face experience.  ““I can see client/couples faces better on Zoom than I can at my table,” he says, “and I think that sharing a screen may be better than looking at the same piece of paper on the table.”

Ken Weingarten, of Weingarten Associates in Lawrence Township, NJ, doesn’t go that far.  But when he combines virtual client meetings with in-person client lunches, the overall client experience is improved.  “I suspect that the ability to deduct 100% of meals again for the next couple of years will mean this is something advisors will be doing more of,” he says.

Virtual meetings are opening up the marketplace

If Zoom meetings are more efficient than driving to an in-person experience, they are also allowing clients to work with advisors on the far other side of the Mississippi.  The trend is already showing up in prospect calls.  “I’ve experienced an uptick in prospects that contact me from other states,” says Cathy Curtis, of Curtis Financial Planning in Oakland, CA.  “In the past, I primarily got local clients,” she adds.  “But now I’m getting inquiries from Google searches for a female advisor.”

Kevin Jordan, of Macke Financial Advisory Group in Fort Myers, FL says his firm is preparing for these virtual searches by redesigning its website and creating a subsidiary brand to target a niche market.  “The web designer is also leading our digital marketing presence,” he adds, “which will include social media, webinars, and so forth.”  The Schedule Once calendar is getting a facelift, and the firm has stuck a “schedule a meeting” button on each clients’ Orion portal.

“We really didn’t need to do these things before the pandemic, because we were doing fine with word of mouth referrals here locally,” says Jordan.  “But if we’re going to convince someone across the country to choose us over the local guy, we need to have an A+ virtual game.”

The pandemic (and Zoom revolution) may be killing off the traditional wholesaling model

Bradley Mendel, at Mendel Money Management in Northbrook, IL, points to another aspect that may not have been immediately obvious: the new Zoom culture could put an end to those (often annoying) in-person meetings with wholesalers and vendors. 

Scott MacKillop, of First Ascent Asset Management (the world’s only flat-fee TAMP), is seeing this already in his interactions with other vendors.  “The old wholesaler-on-an-airplane distribution model is dead,” he says.  “The new model is interacting with advisors through virtual meetings, sponsoring webinars, email campaigns, digital advertising, content creation, telephone calls and retooling websites to tell the story and provide value.”  this, he adds, is a positive development for advisors, because it is more convenient for advisors and will keep costs down—cost savings that may be passed on to clients in the form of lower fees.

Post-pandemic, as remote communications become more prevalent, the traditional home office staff concept is being upended.  Virtual staff have already become more prevalent.  Advisory firms are taking the opportunity to hire anywhere, and also to reduce home office space.  But the challenge will be maintaining a corporate culture.

“I was set to increase my office space by 50%, but I backed off to a more modest 15% increase in space,” says Michael McCarthy of Financial Consulate in Hunt Valley, MD.  Going a step beyond, Gary Matthews, of SRI Investing, has an office in Manhattan that he says he might never use again.  “The virtual office might well become the primary business model going forward,” he says.  During the pandemic, he has been working out of his home in Madison, NJ.

Others are enthusiastic about the possibilities.  “The Zoom meeting thing is huge for us; more efficiency, less driving, office space is less important, staff can be anywhere,” says Scott Huelskamp of Thrivent Advisor Network in Denver, CO. 

“I agree that we’re now able to hire great talent from other parts of the country to work remotely,” says Timothy Chambers, of Traverso Chambers in Santa Rosa, CA.  “So many benefits, including not needing additional office square feet.” 

Will it be possible to maintain a consistent corporate culture when the staff only sees each other a few times a year?  “We’re more open to virtual team members than we were before the pandemic,” says Adam Cmejla of Integrated Planning & Wealth Management in Carmel, IN.  “But we’ll still ask them to come to the ‘mother ship’ a couple of times per year for the ‘on the business’ type of work and continue to build our culture and relationships as a team.”

Carolyn McClanahan, of Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, FL, says that her permanent change is having her staff work from home two days a week, with people in staggered office schedules, with advisors coming to the office when clients want to meet in-person.  But she doesn’t ever intend to go full remote staffing.  “We will not recruit people who do not want to move to Jacksonville,” she says.  “Culture is so important, and it is hard to instill culture if you aren’t spending time physically in the same space.”

Kay Kramer, of Birchwood Financial Partners in Edina, MN, has adopted a similar philosophy.  “We’ll be mandating a few days in the office for most staff,” she says, “with the flexibility for advisors to work for several weeks a time remote as long as they can manage their calendars with Zoom.”

Kathryn Peyton, of Abacus Wealth Partners in Santa Monica, CA, thinks that advisory firms with a predominately local staff may face some rebellion from people who have grown accustomed to working at home.  “We’re going to have a huge issue with employers requiring people to come back to work, while employees are thinking they should be able to work remotely at least three days a week,” she says.  “This conflict will be much worse in places like LA, where commutes are long and arduous.”

Meanwhile, in this emerging remote workplace environment, advisors and advisory firm owners have discovered the freedom to work from anywhere:

“I gave up my office last June, and don’t feel any pressure to rent another one,” says Curtis.  “My husband and I have been taking road trips, and I bring both my desktop and a second screen, so we can up my office wherever we go.  We’re going on a three-week trip to Aspen, Breckenridge and Park City, where I plan to work and play,” she adds.  “That seems more possible now due to COVID and the changes to more online communication.”

“This pandemic has clearly proven to me that my ideal day could be to wake up in a European capitol, spend 75% of the day enjoying myself,” says Weingarten, “and then around 3:00 PM (9:00 AM on the East Coast) I could work for a few hours, and then by 6-7 PM be ready to enjoy my evening.  There is no reason this could not be done for 6 months at a time,” he adds, calling it “a perfect pre-retirement schedule that could last 20+ years.”

Advisory firms may be permanently more efficient as a result of the pandemic.

One of the most important permanent changes is a hard swing to online onboarding, away from paper to e-documents, and also to a faster exchange of information from clients.  The pandemic forced custodians to accelerate development of more efficient online onboarding during a period when advisors couldn’t sit down with clients and show them where to sign paper documents.  At the same time, clients who were forced to adapt to Zoom also began accepting online or remote exchange of documents.  “We’re getting clients to upload their information rather than snail mail,” says Milne.  “We are so much more efficient; I hope we don’t go back.”

“I think a shift toward digital paperwork and completing tasks digitally will be around for good,” says Huelskamp.  “We have several new processes for doing this with folks who previously would only want paperwork or in-person meetings.  I think a newfound trust in electronic task completion is here to stay.”

Jessica Searcy Kmetty, of Searcy Financial in Overland Park, KS, was a pioneer in creating a workforce that could work anywhere in the country—including her in Arizona and her father in Naples, FL, far from the Overland Park, KS home office.  Now she sees a whole new world of COVID-driven efficiencies.  “With video chats and virtual prospect meetings, we’re closing business a whole lot faster than we used to,” she says.  She points to the ability to have more video chats with clients and prospects, more opportunities to work with people in other areas of the country, and attracting people who might have put off working with a planner because of the inconvenience of coming to the office. 

It’s a winning formula: more business opportunities, easier and faster onboarding and quicker followups.  “Our small team of ten people has onboarded 34 new clients since January without leaving our homes,” Kmetty says.

Since the full staff working-from-home experiment, Searcy Financial has become even more confident about hiring remote workers—including advisors—and Kmetty has found that Microsoft Teams has made it easier for the remote team to share information and collaborate than the pre-COVID processes.  To maintain culture, she has added quarterly virtual team lunches.  “We’ll still get together once a year in-person for strategic planning, team building and a holiday celebration in early December,’ she adds.  “But once a year is sufficient.”

This may be another permanent shift: Kmetty says that her staff people are putting in a greater number of productive hours—because people can work during the time they would otherwise have been commuting. Clients who have adjusted to Zoom meetings have also shifted to looking on the company’s website for answers to their questions—to where the staff is answering frequently-asked questions on a running blog. 

“Less travel, no client events (other than virtual that really don’t cost us anything), no business entertainment, more work time and lower expenses overall,” is how Kmetty sums it up.  “Our net profit is up significantly.” 

Virtual meetings may be slightly less personal than in-person meetings, but that has been more than made up for by greater frequency of contact.  Another potentially permanent change: the pandemic has nudged advisor/client relationships into new territory.

“Client interaction has increased,” says Randy Brunson, of Centurion Advisory Group in Duluth, GA.  “Now, when clients have a question, rather than save it for an annual review, we simply jump on a 30-minute Zoom call.”  He adds that, instead of the unplanned phone call, clients will now send an email saying they have a question, and ask for a 30-minute Zoom call to discuss.  “It allows us to manage our internal calendars more easily,” he adds, “which is a big plus.”

“My relationships with clients deepened during this time, as I continue to serve as a sounding board for more than finances,” says Amy Jo Lauber, of Lauber Financial Planning in West Seneca, NY.  “It’s prompted more philosophical conversations, broader perspectives, and there is more grace for all—when we all desperately need it.”

There is some anecdotal evidence that the pandemic may even have created a once-in-a-career marketing opportunity for advisors who embraced this larger role in their clients’ lives.  “Our referral rate spiked in 2020 to 55%, says Brett Engelking of Ellenbecker Investment Group in Pewaukee, WI.  “My only explanation is that the teams spent a ton of time calling every client in late March and early April when the markets went haywire, and that sparked increased referrals.”

“My new business was up during the pandemic,” adds Cindy Gleason of Gleason Financial Group in Cedar Falls, IA.  “It was like people were perusing the internet and thinking about money more—and probably realizing that they weren’t where they might have wanted to be.”

Finally, the pandemic may have changed all of us in little ways as well as big ones.

“Suits and ties were already on their way out,” says Chambers.  “I think COVID took them out for good.”

Lauber reports that she didn’t catch the traditional annual flu or even a cold during the pandemic.  “I may wear a mask indefinitely,” she says.

“We have all been reminded of life’s fragility,” says Thomas Alvaré of JFS Wealth Advisors in Doylestown, PA, “and will place a higher value on time spent with family and friends and traveling over more money in our portfolios.”