As retirement plan consulting is such a personal business that has traditionally relied on face-to-face meetings with plan sponsors, retirement plan committees and participants, the COVID-19 social distancing measures and subsequent switch to virtual meetings have forced retirement plan advisers to be more resourceful in how they serve clients and prove their worth. It has also changed the way they prospect for business to rely more on networking, digital ads and social media, advisers says.
“Obviously, the biggest change for us was moving from personal to virtual relationships,” says Anthony Pascazio, chief executive officer of Reedmark Advisors.
To compensate for this, like many other advisers, Pascazio now contacts his plan sponsor clients more often. “Before the pandemic, we would speak to a client two times a month,” he says. “Now, it is one to two times a week, and Zoom has made that possible.”
Chris Soto, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo Advisors, says his practice pivoted much the same way: “We now have more touch points with clients than previously and have made it a point to provide even better service to our clients, and, in a lot of ways, we improved our relationships with clients.”
Many advisers have also pivoted to “address consumers’ heightened awareness about their health care needs and their mortality,” says David Wright, executive director of practice development at M&O Marketing. “This has brought discussing long-term care planning, life insurance, estate planning and beneficiaries into their conversations with participants.”
UBS has also made it a point to expand its discussions with clients beyond just retirement planning, says Chad Goerner, senior institutional consultant at the firm. Like his peers, Goerner says he made it a priority to have a hands-on role in providing service to clients.
“Virtual meetings change the feel of a relationship with a client, so we changed our service model to make up for this,” he says. “We decided to deliver quarterly curated content on industry best practices and trends, on helpful education for participants and on legislation. The other thing we did was to increase our contacts with plan sponsors beyond just retirement planning issues to discuss critical issues of the day: vaccine trends, where they are being delivered and which ones are available when. We also focused on research related to the pandemic, such as data from other countries that were reopening. Our clients found this immensely helpful because many companies were flying blind on when they could return to business as usual.”
Of course, participants’ financial wellness and well-being became top of mind for plan sponsors as the pandemic broke out, says Jay Laschinger, executive vice president and national practice leader at Alliant Retirement Consulting.
“Employers immediately focused on what they can do to help participants, so we guided them and their participants to know what programs are available to them from their recordkeepers and other service providers,” Laschinger says. “With layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs occurring, it also became painfully obvious that many Americans lacked emergency savings, so we have been helping our clients on this. Many have been asking us about the viability of offering an emergency savings account alongside their retirement plan.”
Laschinger says Alliant’s advisers have worked to make themselves available to personally discuss financial goals with participants.
New Ways of Prospecting
Retirement plan advisers have also had to find new ways of seeking out and winning potential clients.
Reedmark, which serves the midsize market, suddenly found it impossible to meet with the retirement plan committees of potential clients, Pascazio recalls.
“You are not going to get 11 to 13 members of a committee to participate in a Zoom call, so, instead, we turned to rely on our centers of influence for referrals and ramped up our communication with them,” he says. “This includes ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act] attorneys, auditors and bankers. We underscored the services we provide and reviewed their clients’ retirement plans to see if there were areas we could substantially improve. We educated them on how, by improving their clients’ plans, this would be a value-added service they could bring to them. We have had success with that.”
Advisers have also turned to digital advertising on social media outlets such as LinkedIn and through on-demand webinars, podcasts or radio shows. Some have even held meetings with attendees in their cars, via drive-ins, Wright says.
Wells Fargo discovered that industries catering to home improvement are now suddenly finding it hard to recruit talent, and they are more interested in improving their retirement plans as a recruitment and retention tool; the firm has been able to win some of those clients through its referral network, Soto says. In fact, he says, “we are in the best shape we have ever been.”
UBS has also had success seeking out industries that have thrived during the pandemic, Goerner says.
“We actually have won several RFPs [requests for proposals] during the pandemic without meeting the plan sponsor or their committee face to face,” he says. “Not only have we sought out those sectors that have thrived, but we have made it a point to focus on how we can help their employees improve their financial wellness, and that has really resonated. Prospects and new clients are tired of the same quarterly investment review. That is not our service model. Ours is more holistic. We take a look at their demographics and set goals at the beginning of the year, be it increasing participation or the deferral rate, and we then track our progress throughout the year. That takes a lot of pressure off of the employer and helps build a better relationship, and all of these factors have resonated.”