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Calling clients has become even more important for advisors as stock markets whipsaw and businesses struggle under the pressure of the pandemic.Chainarong Prasertthai/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Many financial advisors have embraced technology to communicate with clients as they struggle with the financial hardship caused by COVID-19. But the communication tool that has had the greatest impact for some is also the most traditional – the telephone.

Showing up for clients is easy in good times, but clients need to be able to lean on their advisors during challenging periods. And advisors should have those difficult conversations over the phone, says Jason Pereira, partner and senior financial consultant at Toronto-based Woodgate Financial Inc.

“When you’re calling with bad news, it shows that you’re not afraid to hide from it,” he says. “Even the sound of your voice reassures them.”

To that end, Darren Coleman, senior vice-president, private client group, and portfolio manager at Coleman Wealth, a division of Raymond James Ltd. in Toronto, and his team built out a strategy for communicating with clients at key moments throughout the pandemic that relied heavily on the telephone.

They spent a few weeks in early March, when Canada implemented physical distancing measures, calling every client individually to find out how their financial and household needs had changed in light of the pandemic. They asked clients about whether their family members were safe, if everyone was able to return home and if anyone needed extra resources to cope. Since then, they have built out a schedule that identifies key milestones in the pandemic when clients may need to reassess their finances.

“This is like painting the Brooklyn Bridge. Once you’re done, you have to go back and do it again,” Mr. Coleman says. “You need to think through your communication strategy because this has the potential to go on for months. You may have done your call rotation once, but at what point will you do it again – and what will you say?”

This month, Mr. Coleman and his team are making a second round of phone calls, but this time the conversation is focusing less on personal safety and security. Rather, they’re informing clients on how the portfolio management process is adapting to market changes. They plan to cover key indicators influencing their portfolio decisions and analysis on how the situation could evolve in the long term.

While newsletters and videos are effective platforms to provide clients with broad updates and resources, advisors have a responsibility to help people understand how changes affect their individual circumstances, Mr. Coleman says. And the best way to do that is through conversations.

“As advisors, we shouldn’t be repeating the news that’s already being force fed to them on every news channel,” he says. “Our job is to give them some perspective, insight and wisdom and help them see the situation in a slightly different way.”

Rona Birenbaum, founder and certified financial planner at Caring for Clients, a fee-for-service financial-planning firm in Toronto, says that while the telephone has never gone away, advisors had shifted increasingly to e-mail as the main method of communicating with clients over the past decade. Online correspondence became more efficient, allowing advisors and clients to address questions on their own time while avoiding phone tag, making it easier to document conversations and important information in the process.

“In the past, I would’ve just responded to questions by e-mail, but it just doesn’t feel right to do that at this time,” she says. “Circumstances have changed and clients find comfort and connection in voice. We’re adjusting to where our clients are, what their state of mind is, and what’s most helpful to them.”

Ms. Birenbaum says she found herself typing out e-mails about sensitive, complex updates, only to push away the keyboard mid-sentence and give the client a call.

“In an e-mail, I’d start by asking [clients] how things are going and hope they’re okay in terms of what’s happening with COVID-19. I would then get a general response that everyone is okay and healthy, but then straight on to business,” she says. “But over the phone, I can ask additional questions, such as how the kids are handling school and how they’re getting their groceries.”

For milestone meetings, such as annual reviews, Ms. Birenbaum schedules videoconferencing chats. But in having regular one-on-one conversations over the phone, Ms. Birenbaum says she has been able to provide better advice and more tailored recommendations as circumstances change. Most importantly, advisors learn about indirect factors that could be influencing clients and their financial well-being.

“If we’re able to draw out from a client what their greatest concern is and what’s happening in their life at that moment, then we can respond,” she says. “If we find out that a client’s kid has lost their job, then we can look into government programs and other things that they can do. So we’re not necessarily advising the client, but we’re giving them information for an important family member and benefit them indirectly.”

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