Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” No one can yet say for certain what the ultimate, long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on the financial advisory industry — or on society at large — but it certainly is testing the business.
Yet financial advisors have learned to adapt quickly to serve their clients. Although life has changed, clients’ needs and goals have not. Retirements, estates, long-term care and college educations need to be planned no matter what the climate.
“Clients have different perspectives about the pandemic,” says Joseph Marinaccio, a certified financial planner at Wells Fargo Advisors in Fairfield, New Jersey. “It’s not our job to agree or disagree. It’s our job to learn where they’re headed and do what we can to help them.”
Further, the pandemic-driven slowdown has in some cases been conducive for advising, says Andrew Schwartz of Madison Planning Group in White Plains, New York.
“We’re having the planning talk with greater frequency,” notes Schwartz, who has lost two clients to COVID-19 related deaths. “There first was something of a disconnect when it came to COVID-19. Then reality started to hit with business and school closings. The phone has barely stopped ringing.”
Indeed, the plunging stock market was an eye opener for some younger clients who had never experienced a bear market, Schwartz adds.
“Some clients lost jobs,” he says. “Then the 35- to 45-year-old set began calling for planning, account consolidation, projections and the like. [However,] older clients are adjusting to when they can go to the supermarket. They’re upset over a loss of religious services and family get-togethers.”
Communication, No Matter How, Still Key
How advisors have communicated with clients in these socially distant times has been a challenge for some advisors — and one likely to remain after the pandemic.
“Clients don’t care very much whether you’re talking over the phone or by Zoom,” Schwartz says. “Working from home and other so-called alternative means of communications are here to stay. Clients are generally accepting of this. Many are doing the same thing with their own jobs and businesses.”
According to a Fidelity Investments study, Diving into Digital Marketing, 90% of advisors surveyed are leveraging at least one digital marketing tactic.
“Our office serves a very diverse client base,” says Marinaccio. “Most of the clients have been very respectful of social distancing and mask wearing. Subsequently, they’re largely agreeable to alternative means of communication versus meeting in person.”
Marinaccio, who had regularly called and met with clients face-to-face, in addition to providing electronic and print newsletters, describes his new communication methods as “successful,” when it comes to maintaining a consistent communications schedule that still addresses client needs.
“We’re maintaining a level of normalcy,” he says. Regularly providing reviews was a key part of his pre-pandemic client communications efforts and one he is maintaining.
Phone continues to be the most used channel to connect with prospects, although half of advisors under 35, and 40% of advisors aged 36 to 54, are using video for prospecting during the pandemic, according to Fidelity’s survey.
“We regularly prospect, no matter the climate,” notes Marinaccio. “Some clients are very comfortable on the phone.”
Many communication changes implemented during this pandemic will become a regular part of advisors’ practice.
In fact, Fidelity’s survey reveals that RIAs anticipate doubling the use of video conferencing with clients, with 14% of client interactions occurring via video versus 7% pre-pandemic. Currently, one-fifth of RIAs reported using video for client meetings.
“Communicating on Skype or Zoom was not a strength of mine six months ago,” admits Marinaccio. “I’ve become reliable with it. Still some clients ask: When do you think you’ll be back in the office?”
A lack of advisor-driven communication historically has been a leading complaint of clients. But as technology now provides more tools to service and maintain contact with clients, this could change.
“The pandemic is a turning point,” Schwartz says. “It’s going to be talked about for years to come.”
Joseph Finora is a media consultant to the financial industry.