Source: RIA Intel

With face-to-face meetings off the table, here are ways to seal the deal and strengthen existing relationships.

There’s no impression like a first impression. That’s why advisors typically cultivate a calm and welcoming office environment. For new client leads arriving for a “get acquainted” session, a strategically-placed ficus tree or watercolor of a sailboat on a shimmering bay can help put clients at ease as they ponder whether to enter a long-term planning relationship.

At least that’s how advisors used to conduct business.

Today’s new client leads can only connect with us via phone or video. Gone are the days (for now) when we could effectively read body language as a potential client expressed their hopes and fears.

Indeed, for some advisors, the online shift in the new client outreach process is leading to a drop in “conversion rates.” That’s the percentage of potential prospects that sign on to work with an advisor after first contact.

Elliot Pepper, co-founder of Baltimore-based Northbrook Financial, has noted a subtle yet clear change in the client engagement process. “The people that have reached out to us have more questions than usual…they are taking a little longer to decide if they want to move forward,” he says.

The hesitation is understandable. Many folks are feeling less secure about work these days and shelling out money for planning may not be in their comfort zone. As Pepper notes, “there’s a sense of apprehension out there in the same way that people are holding off making large purchases right now.”

While Pepper concedes that “our industry isn’t immune to the fear and uncertainty that exists right now,” his existing clients have expressed a gratitude for a deeper level of planning taking place during the current economic recession. “Many of them are doubling down on tax planning, and because of the stock market swings, they are seeking a deeper level of investment consultations than before.”

For advisors that have seen a slowdown in new business, it’s time to pivot from being reactive to proactive. Chris Reddick, a San Antonio-based advisor says “I’ve been doing a lot more in terms of creating blog posts and other content during these times.” And he keeps his message to prospective clients simple: “While people may be hesitant to take on new things during these uncertain times, there has never been a greater need for financial planning.”

To stay in front of potential new clients at a time when face-to-face meetings aren’t on the menu, Jacqueline Schadeck has worked to maintain a robust digital presence. The Atlanta-based financial planner has been sending prospective and new clients more frequent emails and is engaging more on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Not many advisors use Instagram, but Schadeck says that many of her under-40 clients prefer it. The advisor also sends regular cards to clients by mail, further reinforcing her presence.

Do clients get overwhelmed by such active outreach? “They’re really happy to have that communication,” she says. “We advisors really need to stress these touch points.”

Every other week, Schadeck sends an email blast to existing and potential clients, each time focusing on one topic, such as the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), or a market update. “It’s our best way of staying in front of them,” during these challenging times, she says.

This high level of contact has actually “increased the level of conversion rates, when compared to before the pandemic,” says Schadeck.

With the economic picture likely to remain muddled throughout at least the rest of 2020, it may be hard for advisors to provide a high degree of clarity with respect to financial planning choices. At least that’s how many clients likely see it.

Advisors tend to see matters differently. “This is an important time to create scenario planning, accounting for possible events such as job losses, and helping clients understand and best prepare for potentially challenging times,” says Sidney Divine, who runs Atlanta-based Divine Wealth Strategies. He notes that his clients “are paying closer attention to their finances than ever before.”

How are his clients adjusting to the world of video meetings? “For a few of our clients, especially older ones, it’s been a real adjustment,” says Divine. While younger clients seem more comfortable with web-based planning relationships, Divine concedes that “I think I miss the in-person meetings more than many of my clients.”

Casey Smith, president of Marietta, GA-based Wiser Investment Management, thinks the rapid shift towards online planning creates both challenges and opportunities. In the short-term, he’s noticed an uptick in hourly-based planning as he helps new clients answer a series of questions while foregoing the more traditional long-term focused planning that might occur during more robust economic times. “The projects are mostly centered around debt elimination strategies, saving for retirement, an overall financial wellness check, and second opinions on other advisors strategies.”

Even once the economy recovers, Smith says advisor outreach will take on a different tone. In recent months, his firm launched a podcast, a weekly blog, and will soon be offering regular video segments. Those efforts are expected to continue long after we have returned to regular business meetings.

Smith also thinks that for advisory firms to grow in the future that they will need to employ a full-time audio/video person along with in-house marketing managers. That reflects trends already underway well before the pandemic arrived. “Advisors were already moving away from business meetings, networking events, and shaking lots of hands to find new clients,” he says. “Instead, firms have to develop a brand identity so you can better connect with clients that are seeking advisors through social media.”

As the pandemic fades from view, many of us will return to in-person client meetings. At least to some extent. Yet the current shift to digital meetings, outreach, and branding is also likely to play an ongoing and significant role in sustaining and growing an advisory practice. For many advisors, that opens the door to becoming “virtual,” working with clients wherever they may be.

Even for existing and new clients in your region, digital communications are becoming a primary source of contact. You may have grown to hate Zoom meetings. But they won’t be going away any time soon. Now that you are meeting through video chats, you may as well start to digitize many other aspects of your practice as well.

David Sterman is President of New Paltz, N.Y.-based Huguenot Financial Planning