The COVID-19 pandemic caused many financial advisors to rethink how they run their practices and manage client relationships. Sixteen months later, three advisors reflect on the business changes they made and how they’re working out.
Leony deGraaf Hastings, a certified financial planner at deGraaf Financial Strategies in Burlington, Ont., works predominantly with seniors aged 70-plus who find using technology to be a challenge and who love in-person meetings and giving hugs. Ms. deGraaf Hastings lives in a semi-rural area where she describes web connections as “adequate at best.” At the start of the pandemic, she made the pivot to video meetings with mixed results.
The good: meetings take less time since there’s no commuting needed to attend. The not-so-good: trying to explain financial concepts and recommendations can get lost in a video format.
“If the internet cuts out on just one or two important words when you are explaining, that has an impact on client understanding,” Ms. deGraaf Hastings says. “I don’t always know when the internet is frozen until I see clients with a confused, blank stare on their faces.”
Landing new clients via video conferencing has been another pitfall as prospects seem more non-committal, Ms. deGraaf Hastings says.
“I’ve had more no-shows for Zoom meetings than I’ve ever had for face-to-face meetings,” she says, noting that new business has decreased since the pandemic.
Nevertheless, she’s kept busy serving existing clients as they updated their wills, beneficiaries, or wanted to adjust their financial plans to retire earlier or later than anticipated.
Julia Chung, a senior financial planner at Spring Planning Inc. in Vancouver, also notices the distraction when video conferencing with some prospects – not surprising in a world in which most interactions are now in front of a computer.
“Much of our job is to connect with clients and prospects and get to know them on a personal level, and that’s hard to do on a video chat,” she says. “Building trust with people is easier when you really have their full attention. You’re able to spend five minutes doing small talk because that’s what people do when they’re in front of each other.”
Al Jones, president of A. Jones Wealth & Estate Planning Inc. in Barrie, Ont., thrives on small talk as someone who is actively involved with team sports and volunteer work in his community.
Traditionally, in-person socializing was how he gained new clients, but during the pandemic, Mr. Jones shifted to focusing on referrals from existing clients instead.
While most of his meetings have moved to video conferencing, some clients still insist on briefly meeting face-to-face while following the public health guidelines of wearing masks, disinfecting, sanitizing hands, and physical distancing. Mr. Jones notes those meetings tend to be for urgent situations such as delivering a life insurance cheque to a beneficiary.
He missed hosting his summer barbecue for clients last year but brought the soiree to Zoom. Local clients received chicken, ribs, steak, and salads from Tangle Creek Golf and Country Club while Swiss Chalet meals were delivered to clients outside of the Barrie area. Mr. Jones plans to host another Zoom barbecue this summer.
In some ways, the pivot to a virtual world has been beneficial for upgrading business procedures. For example, Mr. Jones is in the process of moving to a digital file system, saving paper and physical storage costs.
Ms. deGraaf Hastings now appreciates compliance-approved electronic signatures that speed up the back-and-forth correspondence that can occur between a client, advisor, centre of influence, and fund companies.
While Ms. deGraaf Hastings worked in her home office often for years, she also had a work setup at her managing general agency (MGA), at which her assistant also worked full time. But the pandemic changed her mind about the efficiencies of full-time remote work.
Earlier this year, she closed her MGA office and helped her assistant make the requested transition to working at home full time.
And for Ms. Chung, whose firm has been operating remotely long before the pandemic, she has seen a shift in her middle-aged clients’ attitudes about technology.
“Before, some wanted to see us in person in an office. Now, those questions [about us being remote] are completely gone and people are really comfortable with it as they use video conferencing every day,” she says.
That isn’t to say Ms. Chung isn’t looking forward to social events again. She leads her firm’s business development, which traditionally involved frequent travel and in-person meetings.
With restrictions starting to relax as vaccination rates increase, she jokes that she’d like to spend a month next spring attending as many in-person advisor conferences as possible.
“I’m looking forward to just seeing people, catching up, and networking,” she says.
Ms. deGraaf Hastings is looking forward to resuming in-person visits with clients – and giving and receiving hugs. A few of her clients died from COVID-19 and others from other critical illnesses, and not having been able to say goodbye in person still haunts her. “It’s been hard not to be able to do that.”
Mr. Jones can’t wait for face-to-face community events and even car commutes to see more clients. As he puts it, the pandemic “has shown him gratitude for all the things he took for granted in the past.”