Leadership Perspectives | 05.27.20
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: Industry Members Rise to Challenge of Working Remotely
In the early spring, as the coronavirus outbreak shuttered society and sent securities markets into a tailspin, the most important thing Philadelphia-based financial advisor Bryan Roberts could do was listen. Because more than a few anxious clients wanted to talk.
“My workday was mostly face-to-face meetings with a few phone calls sprinkled in," said Roberts, a wealth management VP with the American Heritage Investment and Retirement Center, located at American Heritage Federal Credit Union.
"I've had to adapt."
Focusing on existing clients, Roberts works the phone, sends emails, and coordinates with other dispersed colleagues on facilitating electronic signatures and other workarounds, overcoming any and all hurdles that come up.
Around the country, advisors are sharing similar stories of "whatever-it-takes" attitudes working remotely, supported by virtual connections and can-do compliance cohorts, resulting in surprising effectiveness considering the stress and sheer abnormality of these times.
Business is now anything but usual. Regardless of what comes next, many professionals who work more efficiently in an office setting will have learned new techniques to engage with their clients.
From the start of the pandemic lockdown, with the shock of a new normal only just setting in, CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), with which Roberts' practice is affiliated, kicked into high gear in terms of prioritizing the securing of remote work connections, training advisors about online tools and widening access so that any affiliate advisor could conduct business via e-signatures, said CBSI President Rob Comfort.
"We increased our communications and our commitment to helping our advisors adjust and succeed,” Comfort said.
In late March and into April, Comfort was hosting weekly strategy calls and sending out regular resource-laden missives to the field, encouraging advisors to look at the crisis as an opportunity to position their practice as one that can mitigate volatility in a calming and informed fashion.
"This was a time to show clients both expertise – and empathy," he said.
‘We're All Going Through This Together’
"One of the most common pieces of feedback I get when talking to our advisors in the field is how genuinely grateful clients are to hear from them, and gratitude for having a financial plan," said Pete Dunlap, President of Citizens Securities in Dublin, Ohio.
"Clients more than understand the disruption and you find out that they are just as worried about their advisors,” Dunlap. “We're all going through this together."
With 425 advisors suddenly about to go remote, Dunlap, around St. Patrick's Day, ordered up a test-platoon of 20 of the bank's more seasoned producers to work from home for a few days of trial, error and reconnaissance. By the start of the following week, as most of the country sheltered in place, a checklist of new normal processes was circulated as the entire team dispersed into isolation while a skeleton operations crew maintained the home office.
"Everybody is different although for the most part I have a lot of advisors who used to resist virtual meetings but who now tell me, ‘you know what, this is going to be the new way they do business,’" Dunlap said. "Talk about change management."
And of course there are some advisors who can't wait for the whole work-from-home thing to be over, he said.
In recent weeks, Webster Bank offices throughout Southern New England have begun temporary branch office hours by appointment only. According to John Olerio, Director and SVP of Webster Investments, and Financial Advisor with LPL Financial, his team of Financial Consultants were required to adapt to meet new norms.
"It's been a big adjustment in terms of doing everything that we want to be able to do," Olerio said. "We gave our advisors the tools to adjust, and I have to say they rolled with it."
As the quarantine began, Olerio along with his management team spoke with each of the bank's 50-plus advisors across four states to get a sense of their personal situations and their capabilities and needs, and one by one they came up with a plan. "We asked them, ‘What do you need to service your clients?’ and assured them, whatever it takes they are going to have what they need to be as productive as possible," he said.
"Advisors are re-learning what it means to ‘work your book,’" said Michael Miroballi, President, Huntington Investment Co.
While his team had already begun to embrace digital capabilities, the pandemic crisis "took our adoption up to full," Miroballi said.
Huntington had a ready-to-disseminate road map for digitization of several key functions, allowing for the acceleration of remote activities; this proved particularly useful for those advisor partners who may have been late to the digital game.
"Our advisors and clients are learning and getting comfortable with virtual meeting technology," Miroballi said. "And management has learned new ways to leverage technology to stay connected -- and on top of our teams."
Advisors are rising to the occasion (from wherever they reside) and figuring out things such as retro-fitting an e-signature solution when there are extra layers of paperwork, as is often the case with annuities accounts.
"It's not as seamless," Olerio said of some of the manual labors associated with various accounts. "But it'll get there. Getting that connectivity had been on the industry to-do list but wasn't a priority. Now it's going to get done."
Another common refrain: younger, newer advisors – technologically savvier but more reliant on referrals by way of foot traffic in branches – are having a harder time. The new normal actually has been easier for the older veterans to handle because they have an established book of clients and, when confronted with forced rectification of technology aversions, found laptop-enabled video functionality (surprise) much easier than they thought, said several industry members.
PNC advisors' ability to remain in touch with their clients as the workforce transitioned away from office-based communication systems to cell phones and Skype-based communication proved to be "surprisingly seamless," said PNC senior managers Rob Santillo and Margaret Richardson in a joint email response.
Branch Traffic Disruption Being Felt
“I have a large book of business so overall it has not been too disruptive for me," said American Heritage's Roberts. "But it has been very difficult for newer advisors and for those attracting new clients and accounts and creating new relations. It’s a pretty dry well for referrals that we typically get from our branches.”
During the regular monthly team meeting -- now a group conference call -- the more seasoned advisors are doing their part to give encouragement to peers facing difficulties.
CSBI's Comfort hosted a call May 7 with advisors from across the country so, he explained, “they could hear success tips from their own peers about leveraging changes and achieving results.”
Webster's Olerio described the firm's "meeting in a box," which essentially is a soup-to-nuts module for all preparation and technology steps to hold a virtual client sit-down via Webex, all part of changing mindsets.
"People understand that something that was complicated in normal times is now twice as complicated,” Olerio said. “But you muscle through because your clients need you to."
Not all workarounds are going to be the new normal and some hard lessons still need to be absorbed.
Disruption to branch traffic is being felt tremendously.
“It makes us think more about how we harvest bank opportunities digitally and not rely on branch referrals,” Miroballi said.
"We’ve had to do what we had to do," Roberts said. ""What I tell fellow advisors is to have a constructive and honest assessment of what’s going on and share it with your clients, and have them share their perspective. And listen."