Building Digital Connections in a Socially Distant World

Those few remaining advisers who have been reluctant to integrate digital communications as a core part of their client service strategies have little choice but to reconsider in this new world.

Technological tools such as email, video conferences and webcasting have been around for decades.

Recent years have seen plan advisers refine their use of these tools and come up with more targeted and productive approaches to reaching clients. And, now that it’s become clear that the coronavirus pandemic can be expected to disrupt business as usual for the foreseeable future, such technologies will get a real chance to demonstrate their usefulness.

“Business still needs to be conducted,” says Jason Crane, head of retirement distribution for Ascensus, in Dresher, Pennsylvania. “We closed a significant proportion of our new business last year leveraging our technology capabilities. We anticipate only heightening our use of technology here in the forthcoming months.”

J.P. Morgan Asset Management, for its part, is using videoconferencing to keep its financial professionals in regular contact with plan sponsors. Hectic travel schedules have been transformed into busy weeks of remote conferences and video calls.

“We’ve also incorporated into their weekly activity the ability to use more of a digital engagement approach delivered through Cisco Systems Inc.’s Webex platform,” explains Mike Miller, who heads J.P. Morgan’s U.S. retirement plan services out of Chicago. “Leveraging this telepresence, you can get on a call with six or seven clients even on a Friday. We’ve incorporated this as a best practice across all of the sales teams.”

Staying Connected in a Challenging Time

Miller says J.P. Morgan wants its financial professionals to have as much contact as possible with clients, without wasting time stuck in airports or hotels.

“Does it need to be face-to-face every time? No,” Miller says. Other firms that serve the plan sponsor market have reached similar conclusions.

“For most advisers these days, it’s not good enough just to show up once a year,” says Forrest Wilson, vice president, national sales, Ameritas Life Insurance Corp., in Lincoln, Nebraska. “You need to be a lot more engaged with your client.”

Wilson says that even in a digital-first setting, clients appreciate regular contact, and this is doubly true during periods of market turbulence.

“Advisers need to be the source that’s going to educate their client and take advantage of the opportunities,” Wilson adds.

To supplement their phone calls and teleconferences, advisers are coordinating newsletter publication schedules and leveraging social media outlets, such as LinkedIn, to bolster outreach to clients.

Kevin Morris, vice president and chief marketing officer for retirement and income solutions at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa, says the 15,000 to 20,000 retirement plan advisers in the United States employ a variety of approaches to using technology as a marketing device.

“The strategy depends on the sophistication of the financial adviser,” Morris says. “If they have 30 clients, they can be very connected to those clients on LinkedIn and remain in touch with the CFOs [chief financial officers] and the heads of HR [human resources].”

Larger firms will obviously have a harder time staying connected to a larger client base, but, on the other hand, they should have more staff and monetary resources to devote to maintaining digital connections.

“Demonstrating leadership isn’t about telling everybody how smart you are about all the retirement planning stuff,” Morris warns. “It’s about simplifying and packaging information in a way to make it easy and digestible for others.

A Reliance on Remote Work

Strategic Retirement Partners (SRP) has developed a “heavy reliance” on remote work capabilities over the past decade. Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic and its associated travel restrictions have demonstrated the value of the remote work setup.

Even before the crisis struck, about 70% of the firm’s employees regularly worked from their homes, and that arrangement has permitted the firm to more or less sustain its normal operations, including contacts with plan sponsors.

“All of the advisers around the country have done call-ins to all their clients to check in, to see how they’re doing,” says Jeff Cullen, managing partner for the firm in Shorewood, Illinois. Cullen says SRP is planning to put its experience with remote work to good use by writing a white paper for plan sponsor clients with advice about managing a remote workforce productively.

“Over the years, we’ve learned a lot of do’s and don’ts,” Cullen says. “By having everything in the cloud and staying all connected the way that we do, it’s just an interesting way to do business.”

Cullen adds that since SRP moved to a primarily remote work setup, the firm’s ability to share information among advisers has seen big improvements, and the firm has been able to share what it has learned with its clients.

“It really empowers us to respond to something like this much, much faster than if we weren’t wired the way that we’re wired,” Cullen concludes.