Building your book of business is a perennial challenge, but this year may present special obstacles — and opportunities — given the pandemic.
Canadian financial professionals expect their assets under management to increase by a modest 2.1% over the next 12 months, finds a Natixis survey conducted in March and April. Over the next three years, annualized growth of 14.3% was expected.
That growth will be driven by new and existing clients seeking more advisory services, survey respondents said. One challenge, therefore, is finding efficiencies in your practice. Canadian advisors allocated about 9% of their time to prospecting, the survey found.
Digital offerings from firms and dealers, many of which were adopted in response to the pandemic, could boost efficiency.
The pandemic has accelerated changes “that were already upon us,” said Wynn Sweatman, a senior consultant and advisor at Lawton Partners Wealth Management in Winnipeg. “What might have happened over 10 years is now happening in two or three or four.”
A recent report from U.S.-based data and tech firm Broadridge Financial Solutions said businesses may never return to the old normal, leaving financial services firms no choice but to accelerate innovation.
In a global survey commissioned by Broadridge completed June 1, financial executives said the tech that proved most beneficial was digital interaction and the cloud.
Firms that aren’t keeping up risk losing their talent.
“Whether advisors perceive their firm’s technology is improving has become the most significant indicator of advisor satisfaction among both employee and independent advisors,” said J.D. Power earlier this month in a press release for its 2020 U.S. advisor satisfaction survey.
Michael Stanley, president at Sterling Mutuals Inc. in Windsor, Ont., said his firm sped up its e-signing solution for name plans because of the pandemic. The firm now has a “full end-to-end digital experience,” he said, including a client portal with a charting feature that allows clients to monitor their investments.
The dealer is also in the process of introducing ETFs on its online platform this year, Stanley said.
Anthony Messina, president and CEO of Worldsource Securities Inc. and Worldsource Financial Management Inc. in Markham, Ont., cited electronic documents and forms, e-signatures and suitability calculators as part of the firm’s digitization efforts.
He also noted the purchase of a majority interest in Modern Advisor Canada Inc. earlier this year by parent company Guardian Capital Group Ltd., which will further digitize client interactions.
Messina said younger advisors and clients, in particular, want a digital experience.
“As dealers, we have to provide that,” he said. “The growth and development of the industry is via technology.”
Mark Walhout, owner of Walhout Financial, said his dealer, Investia Financial Services Inc., accelerated its processes for digital onboarding in response to the pandemic.
Walhout said he also appreciates the firm’s communication with advisors. Investia’s annual educational event, which is usually in person, went ahead this spring through a web portal.
Advisory skills under scrutiny
Tech isn’t an end in itself. Clients come to advisors for the human touch, and to have financial matters explained — something the pandemic demonstrated, Messina said.
The crisis may also have laid bare advisory skill. Market disruptions provide an opportunity for high-quality advisors, Messina said. “The advisors less committed to their practices get exposed, and the top advisors get referrals.”
In the Natixis survey, 85% of global respondents said the most effective way to build their businesses was through referrals from current clients and contacts.
Messina said client onboarding at his firm hasn’t slowed much since the pandemic, based on the firm’s flows. Online meeting platforms have helped.
Referrals typically represent about half of Walhout’s new business. He also leverages his past professional network to gain new clients (he previously worked in technology services).
Since the beginning of the year, he’s promoted his business on social media and created weekly podcasts. “People hear my voice and know how I think,” which helps build interest and trust, he said. Mortgages and debt have been popular podcast topics.
Despite tech tools and digital onboarding, however, Walhout expects that building his book will be challenging if social distancing continues.
“There’s no substitute for the contact you can have with somebody when you’re sitting with them in a meeting,” Walhout said. “The ability to listen, understand and create trust is hard to replicate over a screen.”
Sweatman is concerned that technological development within the industry — everything from digital tools to advances in investment selection and products — could overshadow relationship building.
He sold his business three years ago and is in the process of retiring. “We built those businesses by listening and talking to people and using emotional intelligence to help bring them to some decision or at least to define their goals,” Sweatman said of his generation.
He stressed the importance of understanding life’s unpredictability — health scares, divorce, death, black swans — and finding ways to prepare clients.
That means relating to them emotionally and having the skills to create and implement successful plans, Sweatman said; yet, he questioned whether young advisors receive the appropriate training to do that.
He described a new client who didn’t understand the lengthy financial plan prepared by another firm — a plan that was also inadequate. “There was no attention at all to the risks that might blow up the plan,” he said.
The Natixis survey said the top ways to nurture new and existing client relationships were regular communication (54%) and getting to know clients on a personal level (50%).
Walhout, who has been in the industry for about four years, leaves his tech background behind when connecting with clients.
“The more you try to talk technically to people, the more you turn them off,” he said. “The more I can attach [financial concepts] to their hopes, dreams and goals, the easier it is to get people to buy in.”