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The convenience of virtual meetings – which include avoiding travel time, costs and offering greater flexibility in scheduling – has been a welcome change for clients.Geber86/AFP/Getty Images

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Some positives that have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the widening array of ways to meet with clients virtually. But experts warn that advisors need to remain alert to issues that might arise from meetings in a digital context.

Firms and regulators appear to be broadly supportive of advisors using remote meetings more often as long as security measures and guidelines for protecting client interests are adhered to.

Karen McGuinness, senior vice-president, mutual fund dealer member regulation, membership intake and innovation, at the New Self-Regulatory Organization of Canada in Toronto, says while there are pros and cons to any medium, advisors will need to use their judgment on issues such as undue influence from others during a remote call.

“You have to take the clues both from your client, and what it is they’re trying to accomplish in order to decide how you want to proceed,” she says.

“In some cases, it [could be] a high-risk scenario [such as] a client calling to make large dollar value transactions or ... to change limited trading authority.”

These situations are unusual and out of the blue, Ms. McGuinness adds.

“[It] may not be something you have discussed before,” she says. “Then, it may be worthwhile to have an in-person [meeting].”

Having a trusted contact person can help in situations in which an advisor suspects a client’s cognitive abilities have declined, Ms. McGuinness notes. It’s a complex issue, and there may not be a particular point at which it becomes clear a client is beginning to struggle.

“If there’s ever a question – that’s the purpose of having the trusted contact person,” she says. “If I was going to give any advice, it would be to plan in advance before you encounter that scenario.”

Outlining such scenarios with clients can also help in promoting the benefits of appointing a trusted contact person, whether the client is elderly or not, she says.

How to address red flags

Ryan Gubic, a certified financial planner who founded his Calgary-based practice MRG Wealth Management in 2017, says the majority of his clients now choose to meet with him via video call.

The convenience of virtual meetings – which include avoiding travel time, costs and offering greater flexibility in scheduling – has been a welcome change for clients.

But Mr. Gubic says that if he senses a change in a client that could raise flags, such as a change in cognitive ability, he will recommend that the trusted contact person join the meeting, a suggestion that clients are typically open to.

Having a trusted contact person present can also enhance a client’s sense of security, he adds.

Mr. Gubic also uses open-ended questions to assess a client’s understanding of what’s being discussed, often including the word “why” to test clients’ recollections and motivations for decisions. He tries to ensure the matters under discussion fit with previous instructions.

“The other red flag would be if someone did a complete 180 and was looking at withdrawing all their funds or a complete switch in risk [tolerance],” he says.

“Again, it would be really important to understand the why and walk through that with them and fully understand the situation.”

Mr. Gubic also says he tries to ensure that the camera is on during a video call.

“It’s really important to have the camera on so you can still see those facial cues, expressions,” he says. “There’s a lot more nonverbal communication that happens in a meeting that you can’t get on the telephone.”

Security issues and miscommunication

However, Suzana Popovic-Montag, managing partner at Hull & Hull LLP in Toronto, says even if some clients may be more comfortable in familiar environments such as their homes, there are other issues that financial advisors and lawyers need to be aware of. They can range from online security – such as taking technical measures to protect meetings from the rising threat of being hacked – to the possibilities for miscommunication.

“It’s easier for things to be taken out of context [in a remote meeting],” Ms. Popovic-Montag says.

It can, sometimes, be hard to pick up on a client’s social cues in a virtual environment and that can lead to accidental misinterpretations, she adds. Even difficulties with making the technology work can lead to distractions.

“That can have an impact on the relationship and make it harder to solidify closeness [with the client],” she says. “There is also the possibility of a lack of engagement.”

How to reassure clients

She suggests taking time for remote meetings and including a social conversation that helps put the client at ease. In instances in which cognitive decline is suspected, Ms. Popovic-Montag says a health care professional might need to become involved to conduct a formal capacity assessment.

“That’s a tough conversation to have with a client,” she notes.

Her approach is to reassure the client that such measures will help to withstand future challenges to their financial or estate plan by third parties. The best way to do that is to have a health care professional do a capacity assessment, so that if someone later tries to question the financial arrangements made by a client, an advisor can say, “That person was capable and here is proof of that.”

In terms of the future, Mr. Gubic expects the client preference for virtual meetings to continue.

“There are a small amount of clients who are talking about coming back to the office,” he says.

“So, I do see the future being a bit of a hybrid. But what I am experiencing with my clients, is that by far, most prefer virtual.”

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