Virtual Adviser Meetings: Here To Stay or Soon To Go?

Advisers review the main pros and cons of digital meetings and discuss whether or not they will become a permanent fixture.
By DJ Shaw
PA-020022 OSC3 Fintech-Virtual Meetings_Philip Lindeman-web

Art by Philip Lindeman

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many advisers were forced into working from home, using video conferencing tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This has allowed for easy and almost instant contact with clients across the country.

Now that states and companies are lifting certain pandemic restrictions, advisers are working to understand how virtual meetings will fit into their practices—balancing their needs with those of their clients. Several advisers offered their insight to PLANADVISER as we examine to what extent advisory firms plan to continue to leverage these digital meeting platforms, and whether or not a digital-first meeting approach may be here to stay.

Jeffrey Petrone, SageView Advisory Group Managing Director

“On the one hand, the virtual platform has allowed us to scale our service model beyond its previous limitations. We are in Florida, and previously, we may have had to drive hundreds of miles just to get to a client’s office. By using virtual platforms, we can simply click ‘join’ or click ‘disconnect,’ which means we can meet our clients or return right back to our desk instantaneously. So, you can imagine how that makes working much more efficient from a service perspective.”

“It has also been a helpful from a prospective standpoint. Initially, I wouldn’t say that plan sponsors were as interested in engaging with a new adviser virtually. Things have changed as the pandemic has progressed. I have lots of my initial conversations with prospective clients virtually now, and I actually do not see any significant difference between meeting for the first time in person or virtually. Of course, if things go well, we always will then try to have a secondary conversation in person, where we can develop that rapport that you get from the in-person conversation. The deeper relationship building occurs when you are sitting across the table from somebody.”

“The other side of this, for me, is that the pandemic has seen, and given rise to, a lot of turn-over within plan committees. You may have a new chief human resources officer come in or a new chief financial officer join up. This turnover has underscored the need to build new relationships with new leaders at client companies who you might have worked with for a long time. If everybody follows this kind of virtual-first model, then you could get to a point where you might not have the same level of relationship—even with established and loyal customers. I think that dynamic could potentially put you at risk.”

“Virtual is definitely a tool that I think will be used part of the time. I do think that the need for in person meetings is always going to be there to some extent, and what we’re trying to do right now is balance those two things against each other. We aim to create the best combination of efficiency and client loyalty and retention.”

Sean Patton, Westminster Consulting Founding Partner, Senior Consultant

“I think it’s certainly here to stay. I don’t know if services will be ‘digital-first,’ as they have been, but I think a lot of it will have to do with the comfort level of clients being willing to meet in person and up until this point, that has been pretty minimal. I think what comes next will be driven by clients.”

“I think we’ll end up at some point, post COVID, in a hybrid meeting world, where half of the meetings will be in person and half of the meetings will be digital or virtual. That mix is how we will engage clients going forward. Nothing replaces being in person. You can’t replace the collaboration and the side-talk that builds relationships with clients, and we certainly want to get back to that. Again, I think a lot of what happens next will be driven by plan sponsors.”

“Virtual meetings will remain attractive in some cases. There is a real ease of use, the ease of being able to dial into a Zoom call no matter where you are. It’s easier to schedule a meeting, especially if you have clients that are moving around and traveling to meetings as well.”

“The challenges are that people still struggle with the technology at times—you know, being muted when trying to say something important or having your connection drop. I also think, when everyone is not in one location working, it can be a challenge as we try to schedule meetings. If clients are working from home and they are doing stuff, picking up kids or stuff that just wasn’t a distraction prior to COVID because they were at their work location, now those things might get in the way.”

Brett Shofner, Work Plan Retire Principal

“In my view, digital-first service is 100% is here to stay. And here’s the dirty secret: advisers would have always loved to do it this way. I’ll give you a perfect example. I have a bunch of clients in the Denver area. We have an office there. I used to have to go out there probably every other month, at minimum, and I would go see a bunch of clients. Well, now, the digital-first model makes everything simpler. In this environment, clients do not view digital meetings as being less professional or less of a commitment from the adviser. Our clients appreciate the efficiency, and they like knowing that they can have some meetings without having to waste time with all the travel or small talk.”

“Are you going to go to digital every day, all the time, and never meet people? No way. If that’s your strategy, that’s not going to work, because you still have to have a human-centered element to what you do. But again, the efficiency of going digital with the very first meeting or for meetings with people that you know well—it’s kind of perfect.”

“Digital first meetings with longtime clients will continue to make a lot of sense. In-person meetings will probably be more important in that middle ground, where maybe the clients don’t know you as well or if there has been turnover on the committee. It’s kind of like anything in life, right? If you’re talking to an old friend, they’re going to be comfortable with you, whether in person or on the phone.

Jon Meyer, CAPTRUST Chief Technology Officer

“Let’s look at this question from two perspectives. The first is the adviser-client perspective, and then the second is the internal view, or the firm-practice perspective. From the adviser-client perspective, I think that there is no doubt that digital meeting technologies, via Zoom or Teams, will continue after things return to normal from a COVID perspective. Sometimes clients don’t want to meet face-to-face; they want to have a quick call.”

“To me, the immediacy of a video conference is a great way to extend the relationship with the adviser and the client, simply because they can see each other. Oftentimes, advisers are very good at looking at subtle clues and people’s expressions that they might be able to see if they were face-to-face. You can’t really do that over the telephone, but I think you can often do that over a video-based meeting solution.”

“I always think clients will have the option to meet their adviser face-to-face, at least in full service advisory models. That will always be there, but for many clients, once that relationship is established, a video conference is really acceptable. It saves time for the client, and it makes the adviser more efficient, so I don’t really see that trend stopping with the decline, hopefully, of COVID.”

“When you look at internal uses and practices, I also think the genie is out of the bottle. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a meeting with colleagues where it was audio conference only. I think we all have tried to move to a model where we can see our colleagues face-to-face, and so all day long, there are Microsoft Teams meetings that are occurring within our firm, where people are looking at each other and doing a video call or a video conference. It’s just become second nature to us.”

“Our firm has been growing throughout the pandemic. It is very important to us that we maintain this connectivity between colleagues in every office location. I’m really proud to see that technology has played a huge role in keeping people connected during this pandemic.”

Keith Huber, OneDigital Company, Fiduciary Plan Adviser, Retirement Services

“I would say yes, as long as it is still efficient for our clients. For our firm, we would love to continue to leverage digital client service, and we still have the vast majority of our meetings predominantly using Zoom. It’s probably somewhere around 85% to 90% of meetings still on Zoom, and the other 10% to 15% have only gone back to in person at the request of the client.”

“If clients aren’t asking for it, and most of them aren’t, then we really don’t plan on going back in person in the same way we used to. We quickly found that we could do the exact same level of service, a whole lot more efficiently, by doing it on Zoom. We are in Baltimore, but so many of our clients are down in D.C. and Northern Virginia, and I’m sure that even if you haven’t spent much time there, you might have heard just how bad the traffic can be.”

“I think there is one really clear pro and one really clear con with digital-first service. The clear pro is just the efficiency. For those few in-person meetings that I’ve had recently, I felt like I had to arrange my entire day around the meeting. On the other hand, for the past two years, I’ve done four hour-and-a-half meetings in one day. So that that’s a major, major pro.”

“The major con is that this remains, absolutely, a relationship business. For our team in particular, we win and probably keep a lot of our business because we are very personable. We are actually people, we’re a casual office—from how we dress to how we talk. I think that comes through to a lot of people, but I think it’s harder to get that across over Zoom. I guess to sum it up, I don’t think there’s any scenario where you can connect better with somebody doing it virtually.”

Matthew Eickman, Qualified Plan Advisors National Retirement Practice Leader

“The digital or virtual meetings will continue to be a critical ingredient in advisers’ plan service models, and what I expect will happen is that the stronger advisers will not switch to digital as a replacement for everything that they were doing before. Instead, digital meetings will allow them to do slightly less in-person work, which will result in overall more efficient and effective service.”

“Early on in the pandemic, there was this idea—people started throwing around the term ‘low touch economy.’ I never really bought into that, because what I started to see from plan sponsors and from participants is that they weren’t looking for less service when we switched to remote working and virtual conversations. They just wanted to be talked with differently.”

“What we found is that there is a desire for at least as much service as before, and so, for those who really figured out the technology aspect, they can supplement in-person service with digital capabilities. I can supplement in-person service with virtual meetings, and I can actually give my clients 25% to 50% more service. I think that’s the winning formula for advisers moving forward.”