During the pandemic Julie Best has spoken to a number of financial advisers and advice firm business owners to find out how they have been adapting to the crisis. Here, she explores five advice business changes that will last beyond Covid-19
"If you're lucky enough to keep going then there are learnings in there."
At NextWealth we've spoken to a number of financial planners and business owners to find out how firms, planners and their clients are adapting to the ‘new normal'.
While the pandemic measures present challenges to all businesses, including financial planning firms - and of course it goes without saying that the health issues and impact on people's livelihoods are almost unbearable to consider - the situation does lead to, as Murphy Wealth's Adrian Murphy describes it "an opportunity to learn and do things differently, and see if we can take this learning and apply it to whatever reality becomes".
Clients need advice, perhaps now more than ever as the crisis forces many people to re-evaluate their life plans, and so we are sharing some positive ideas from other advice businesses on changes that they are making that may well outlast the present situation and shape their propositions and working practices for years to come.
- Time savings and instant efficiencies
Financial planners have seen the demands on their time multiply over recent years, with more and more admin and compliance work to squeeze into the working day, leaving less time overall to spend with clients at the same time as the full planning process requires more time with each individual client.
Having been forced to switch to ‘meeting' clients via online video tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, several of the planners we spoke to report being surprised at shorter meeting times.
Darren Cooke at Red Circle told us: "I haven't deliberately kept meetings shorter, but they are shorter. Where I would have spent an hour and a half, two hours in a face-to-face, we were done in 45 minutes and we covered everything and had a chit chat about business".
Tim Walsham at Stockport-based Claritas Wealth Management has similarly found that "meetings are shorter without it being ‘wham bam thank you'. You don't dispense with all the niceties; it's just somehow they are all up to 30% shorter".
Some planners may feel concerned that meeting a brand new client for the very first time online would be difficult, however Tim's experience was that "it didn't feel unnatural and we had the same depth of conversation we would normally have".
"It has made us question how much of our work we could do by Zoom. And if we have more new enquiries then we should be able to do it."
And of course there are plenty of firms around who had already made an active choice to work online with some of their clients or in some parts of the planning process. Hence we think it's likely that Zoom meetings will become a natural part of the process even when it becomes possible to sit face-to-face again.
- Accelerating staff development and internal projects
For small-to-medium advice firm owners, in particular those who also advise clients and bring in business, taking time out from the day-to-day to give attention to longer term projects and developments is a tricky balance to strike.
Some business owners we spoke to have found a welcome respite in this unwanted scenario to push ahead with developments regarding their propositions. Adrian Murphy explains: "Compared with the normal day-to-day, with everyone in the office buzzing about, I'm so much more focused and efficient than I would be in the office."
Murphy has also enabled his firm's team of client managers, graduates who have come through Murphy Wealth's training programme, to pick up some of the annual planning meetings via Zoom, for clients with whom they already had a relationship. "It's been perfectly natural so it's really made us think about how we'll do this when we come back", he says.
- New strategies for communicating with clients
VS Associates' Victor Sacks described a conundrum that many planning firms have been weighing up: how, when and how often to communicate with clients to get the balance right.
"If I don't make contact do they think I've forgotten about them, versus if I contact them do they think they need to be worried?" He asks. Sacks' strategy in the end came down to authenticity: being straightforward and honest and starting the first email with "I've sat here wondering whether or not to contact you", and everyone thanked him for the approach. "Clients don't want charts and wavy lines and ups and downs," he says, rather they like hearing from him about how things are going and personal stories.
Other firms have stepped up their communications, perhaps getting out on different social media platforms, recording regular videos for clients and bringing out other members of the team.
Murphy Wealth's new commercial director is a Chartered Accountant and was a senior executive at Bank of Scotland during the 2008 crisis. "It might not be financial planning, but given John's experience and knowledge we're going to make him available to our clients as well."
Murphy Wealth are also establishing an e-booking system to enable clients to book time for a chat: "Just because it's not your annual review meeting it doesn't mean you can't speak to us," says CEO Murphy.
Now may also be a good time to open up communications to non-clients, perhaps a webinar or video chat to which existing clients can invite friends and contacts who don't currently have an adviser but need to pose a question to an expert. A helpful experience now has a good chance of paying dividends for the business later on.
Finally, advice firms should give some thought in the coming weeks to their post-crisis communications strategy. That's an article in itself, but a good strategy might include some analysis of social media engagement generated through the current situation, a continuation of some of the regular new communications that were put in place and timely updates about progress on any lasting changes made to the business that will stand it in even better stead than before.
- Experimenting and taking risks
One way to turn a negative situation on its head is to take the opportunity to experiment. While change is afoot in every aspect of the business, we've spoken to firms who are seizing the chance to try out some new strategies, perhaps condensing the working day or week, allowing team members to work more flexible hours, fit in some exercise time, or spend a bit more time with their families by finishing earlier. As long as the work gets done it is a good time to try things out.
- Looking ahead to increased demand for financial planning
In the early days of lockdown, as Advies Private Clients' Alex Reynolds says "clients were trying to find their new normal: how are they going to function, what's happening with work?" Past the Easter break, however, people may be finding they have more time to dust down their to-do lists and get some financial planning items ticked off.
"We're also reaching out to clients and getting them focused on what they need to get done", says Reynolds. Overall, he expects an increase in demand for his services and that's a feeling shared by most of the planners we spoke to.
Darren Cooke describes three streams that drive more people to advice: those who are sorting out the "big pile of paperwork that's been sat in the ‘too difficult' pile; the DIYers who thought they could do it for themselves and people who have sadly got into difficulty and need financial advice".
NextWealth would love to hear from other planners who are trying out new strategies and working practices or finding new efficiencies that will come off the back of this situation. You can find us at @Next_wealth or online at nextwealth.co.uk
Julie Best is a qualitative researcher at NextWealth
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