Life changes sometimes send your clients far out of your geographical reach, but it doesn’t mean your business relationship has to end. Learn how to use online technology and some old-fashioned customer service to retain that connection.

“We’re moving cross-country to be closer to the kids and grandchildren.” Your reaction is mixed: While you fully understand the decision, from a business perspective you’re worried you’ll lose their business.

Advisors often say solid client relationships are the cornerstone of their business. The products and services one advisor offers aren’t all that different from another’s, they claim, so it’s the personal connection with clients that sustains the relationship. Whether it’s through in-person meetings, calls, e-mails or other means, successful advisors pride themselves on staying in touch with clients.

That thinking raises a question: Can advisors maintain client relationships if distance makes it impossible for the client to drop by the office or come in conveniently for regular meetings? According to the advisors interviewed for this article, it’s not only possible but easy with the right combination of communications methods. In fact, in some instances the advisor and client have never met in person.

Marc Schindler, CFP, partner with Pivot Point Advisors in Bellaire, Texas, works with clients around the world, some of whom he’s never met. “We communicate by telephone, e-mail, etc.,” he says. “Some people like to sit across your desk and look you eye to eye, but, for the majority of our clients, we have found that it’s not important.”

Going online
Rick Kahler, MS, CFP, president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D., says 40 percent of his clients live outside his immediate area, so he relies on a variety of technologies to stay in touch. Kahler uses GoToMeeting, an online conference service that offers integrated desktop-sharing and audio, in conjunction with Skype video-conferencing.

His firm’s website is interactive and offers access to a client portal, budgeting software, brokerage accounts and forms. Kahler notes that he works best with clients who have at least a basic mastery of computers and the Internet. The technology-centered approach works well: Kahler says client feedback has been positive, and his client-attrition rate is low.

Constance Stone, CFP, ATP, president of Stepping Stone Financial Inc. in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, also uses Web conferencing with both local and out-of-town clients. The arrangement saves clients driving to her office, she says. In addition, she uses the usual mix of phone conferences, e-mail and regular mail when needed. Stone cites an example of a client whose travel for work has prevented her from meeting with Stone in person. Nonetheless, Stone says, the relationship remains strong, and they continue to work together.

Blending methods
Tom Meyer, president of Meyer Capital Group in Marlton, N.J., recognizes the competitive challenge created when clients move away. “When we’re not around a corner, we’re susceptible to competitors sitting down at their kitchen table and giving them a spiel,” he says.

The long-distance communications methods Meyer uses depend on the size of the client’s account and the client’s preferred communication methods. Those factors have led him to a combination of travel when necessary, e-mail, phone calls and regular mail. For clients who prefer to see him during a call, Meyer uses Skype video conferencing with Mikogo for screen-sharing.

That combination allows clients to see Meyer and a visual presentation simultaneously. Clients generally find it easy to set up video conferencing on their systems, Meyer says: “A client who moved out to Arizona just e-mailed me, ‘I’ve signed up for Skype, and I’ve ordered a camera for video. See account name below.’ Piece of cake.”

Ted Feight, CFP, owner of Creative Financial Design in Lansing, Mich., also uses multiple communication methods. For large clients, he travels to the client’s location. With smaller clients, he offers to hold regular meetings online via GoToMeeting.

Not all clients are computer-savvy at first, so Feight takes the initiative and helps the clients set up their computers and Internet services. That includes showing the clients how to use Facebook, so they can use social media with their children and grandchildren. Feight is even considering a way to work online with clients who don’t have a computer. His firm preloads a computer with the necessary software and settings and then ship it to the client. After the initial conference, the client calls a delivery service to retrieve the computer.

The communications technologies these advisors are using are inexpensive and usually fairly easy to install. Many computers now come equipped with video cameras and microphones, so clients don’t have to hassle with the setup. Skype and its competitors offer a mix of free and low-cost services; video calling on handheld devices, like Apple’s iPhone 4, could spur greater use of video conferencing. The cost of online meeting and desktop-sharing services varies, but free services, like Mikogo, may be sufficient for your needs.

A word of caution on using these services: Test them with a few users before announcing their availability to all clients. In this writer’s experience, the quality of desktop-computer video conferences and audio calls has ranged from acceptable to horrible. You don’t want to build up client expectations and then have the technology fail to deliver.

What really matters
Technology enhances the ability to stay in touch with remote clients, but if they don’t sense your commitment to them, they will leave you anyway. Debra L. Morrison, CFP, MS, AEP, with Trovena LLC in La Jolla, Calif., estimates half of her clients have moved away from her locale over the past 31 years. She uses e-mail with all but two clients and sends them regular newsletters, reports and digital greeting cards and asks for digital photos of clients’ grandchildren.

That’s not what holds the relationships together over the distance, though, she says: “Ultimately, clients want to know that I care about them and will be there for them, through thick and thin.”