For tech-savvy financial planners who already run virtual practices, sheltering-in-place during the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t drastically changed their daily routine. But for the vast majority of advisers who are accustomed to commuting to the office and chatting with clients in person, it’s a new world.
Jay Spector discovered this the hard way. A certified financial planner in Scottsdale, Ariz., Spector runs a traditional office, working from home and the road as needed. Regardless of his whereabouts, he kept in touch with clients by phone.
Now he’s based full-time at home. Recently a client asked to conduct a Zoom videoconference and Spector agreed, even though he normally doesn’t use a camera. “Five minutes before it was scheduled, I realized I had to comb my hair and dress up,” he said. “By then, it was too late.” Spector was wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt; the client was dressed in business casual attire. “We had a good laugh,” Spector said. But he’s not going to make that mistake again.
Shifting from face-to-face communication to phone and video conversation has created other challenges for Spector. For starters, he’s learning to listen more.
“I can be pretty verbose and make my ideas heard,” he said. Without the ability to detect others’ subtle nonverbal cues that are only visible when they’re in the same room, he’s striving to keep quiet and not interrupt.
Spector is finding that working from home is exhausting as well. Spending the entire workday at his desk leaves little time for diversions. “When I worked in an office, there were more distractions,” he said. “Now I’m finding it’s easy to go 14 hours without taking a break. I have a hard time disconnecting anyway, even when on vacation. It’s even harder now.”
Advisers are opting to work from home even if they don’t live in an area where officials have announced an effective lockdown. With few clients expressing interest in coming into the office — and with repeated “stay home, stay safe” entreaties from authorities — they are forgoing the commute and girding for an extended period of remote work.
Because many advisers have harnessed mobile technology so that they can work remotely, transitioning to a home-based operation is proving relatively seamless. From mobile apps that extend an office phone to a mobile device (such as Accession) to document management software (such as eFileCabinet), digital platforms facilitate transactions and promote connectivity from afar.
Another consideration for advisers working from home involves cybersecurity. Aside from maintaining a secure internet connection, they need to ensure their clients’ data is safe from hackers.
Michelle Gessner, a Houston-based certified financial planner, retained a security consulting firm to monitor her firm’s computers for breaches. She completes a series of steps to log into her laptop, which is especially important when working remotely.
On the financial front, Gessner is thinking opportunistically about long-term tax planning: For some clients with extra cash on hand, she’s exploring Roth conversions (turning a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA).
Advisers are also reinforcing the importance of sticking to the client’s long-term financial plan to weather short-term declines. Chuck Failla, a New York City-based certified financial planner, works with clients to allocate how much money they need in the short-, medium- and long-term. He then sets aside funds in three buckets: 1-5 years, 6-10 years, and more than a decade.
“We keep those account firewalls protected from each other,” he said. “The short-term funds are very conservative, the long-term more aggressive. So our clients are given a great deal of comfort during these difficult markets because they can see the funds in the short-term accounts holding up well. That makes seeing the long-term accounts taking it on the chin much more bearable.”
As advisers cancel or postpone in-person client meetings in favor of phone or videoconferences, the quality of communication doesn’t change all that much. They can share screens, review retirement-planning projections and sign documents electronically.
“Doing all our meetings virtually or over the phone works fine,” said Sean Williams, a certified financial planner in Timonium, Md. “What matters most is being readily accessible to clients. They see how fast I respond to texts, email and phone calls, and that makes a huge impact.”
Williams drafted a continuity plan and mailed it to all clients last week, outlining how they can reach him and assuring them that he continues to have full trading and operational capabilities. He wants to stay close to them throughout these harrowing weeks and proactively address their questions and concerns.
Similarly, Gessner is calling her clients just to see how they’re doing. She’s helping some of them fight off the jitters. “Some people are paralyzed by fright,” she said. “They don’t want to make any changes. They just want to wait and see what happens.”
Less face-to-face interaction leaves more time for creative substitutes. That’s especially true for advisers who used to host client appreciation events or educational programs throughout the year.
Failla plans to replace his regularly scheduled client gatherings with a live webinar in which he discusses the markets and fields client questions. Within 24 hours of announcing it, about 70 people had signed up. “I think everyone these days is a bit starved for connection and comfort,” he said.