staying connected during covid / ani_ka

This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Many financial advisors have been running their businesses effectively from home for nearly two years. But when restrictions lifted for several months in 2021, some advisors were reminded of the value of in-person meetings.

Sonny Wadera, a securities advisor with Kelson Financial Planners Inc. and Manulife Securities Investment Services Inc. in Saint-Laurent, Que., said that while many of his clients embraced the switch to virtual meetings, a portion will always prefer in-person contact.

Until December, when the omicron variant began surging, Wadera was doing 80% fewer virtual meetings and was communicating with clients essentially the same way as before the pandemic.

“Clients were craving [personal contact], I think because they trust us so much with their financial affairs and they felt very comfortable coming into the office face to face,” Wadera said. “That trust carried over.”

With the proper protocols in place, several of Wadera’s clients requested an opportunity to return to the office, so he gave them that option.

“We’re social creatures, so when we were finally able to have a little bit of [personal interaction] back, it was this collective sigh of relief,” Wadera said. “Finances are a top priority, yes. But it’s also that relationship. I think that is where the added value is.”

Wadera called his first meetings with clients after many months apart “therapeutic.”

“It was a venting session, and to do it face to face was comforting,” Wadera said.

Topics such as estate planning, which can be emotional to discuss, and subjects that involve a higher level of security are simply better handled in person, he said.

“When talking about money, you want to be in an environment that makes you feel comfortable [opening] up,” said Lisa-Marie Winning, principal and executive consultant with IG Wealth Management in Burlington, Ont. She said that while most clients are capable of joining online meetings, some have indicated that they don’t feel comfortable having intimate conversations on video or over the phone.

“There is something to be said for energy and connection and being in the same room as someone,” Winning said. “Clients just feel as though they can be themselves a little bit more when they are in person.”

Winning accommodated requests for in-person meetings that came from a small portion of her client base. Prior to the omicron surge, Winning was optimistic about being able to loosen restrictions, and her team had begun developing a post-pandemic plan.

“Our plan was to allow each client to decide what they would prefer or what they were most comfortable with, and we were happy to accommodate,” Winning said.

According to a survey by SmartAsset, a New York-based financial technology company, roughly four in 10 advisors expect in-person meetings to be their preferred form of communication with clients post-pandemic — up from roughly one in 10 during the pandemic.

However, for mature practices, meeting with clients in person may be less critical, said Suzanne Buntain, investment advisor with TD Private Wealth Investment Advice in Halifax.

“My clients already know me very well and that relationship has remained consistent,” Buntain said. “[Dealing with clients remotely] has been a significant change. But I have been amazed at how much focus it has brought to my practice. I don’t think I will ever go back.”

Regardless, connection doesn’t happen without communication.

Four in 10 advisors reported that they communicated more frequently with clients during the pandemic, according to SmartAsset’s survey. More than half of those advisors (57%) said they initiated communication, while 37% said both they and their clients initiated contact more frequently.

“It’s not reconnecting; it’s staying connected,” Winning said. “It is our job to answer questions before they have been asked. The world has changed, so it’s not just to talk about financial affairs and answer questions. It’s to be there.”