This episode, on Prosper:
The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed how we live and work. We asked litigation lawyer Ellen Bessner to explain how to communicate with clients remotely — while remaining compliant. Then, Patrick Kramer, CEO of BDO Canada, talks about how he manages a 4,000-person team that’s now working from home. Transcript below.
Hosted and produced by Bruce Sellery
Mixed and edited by Jason Perrier of Phizzy Studios
Editorial direction and visuals by the Advisor’s Edge team
© 2020 Newcom Media Inc.
Bruce Sellery: Hello, I’m Bruce Sellery. This is Prosper, the financial advisors podcast from Advisor’s Edge.
Sure, who doesn’t want to work from home occasionally? But all day, every day, maybe with kids underfoot and without the optimal broadband speed, privacy or water cooler banter? But that’s the reality these days.
This episode focuses on how financial advisors can work from home as effectively as possible, for their clients and for their team. Ellen Bessner is the author of Advisor at Risk: A Roadmap to Protecting Your Business. She’ll look at what you need to do to take care of your clients and remain compliant.
Ellen Bessner: If you have to work at your dining room table or your kitchen table or somewhere where people are around, have a discussion with them upfront and say, “Look, these are unusual circumstances and I’m hopeful you’ll respect the privacy of my clients,” in terms of letting them see any private information of your clients.
Bruce Sellery: Bessner is a litigation lawyer at Babin Bessner Spry. Then, we’ll focus on your team, what it takes to lead from home. Our guest has years of experience managing a business with many remote colleagues. Patrick Kramer is CEO of advisory firm BDO Canada.
Patrick Kramer: To find a way forward. To have that connection with clients and with our own people to be honest, and make it an energized and engaged situation for all parties.
Bruce Sellery: Financial advisors working from home. Coming up on this episode of Prosper.
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Bruce Sellery: Millions of people are working from home these days. Me, for instance, instead of a fancy-schmancy recording studio, I’ve built a sound booth out of styrofoam from my new dehumidifier box. So, you may notice some crackles and pops in this episode. I’m sorry.
For some, like consultants or salespeople, the routine is no different except for maybe the kids underfoot. For others, who usually work from a traditional office, it might be a break from a gruelling commute. But for financial advisors, working from home creates new challenges, not the least of which is compliance. Ellen Bessner is a litigation lawyer at Babin Bessner Spry and the author of Advisor at Risk: A Roadmap to Protecting Your Business. She joins us now. Hello there.
Ellen Bessner: Hi, how are you, Bruce?
Bruce Sellery: I am holed up in a very comfortable home office, so I’d say given the circumstances, it’s as good as it gets. You have been sending e-alerts proactively to your database. How come? What are you trying to communicate now to financial advisors?
Ellen Bessner: They are the crutch for all of these clients who have lost money recently. Where the markets are very volatile and advisors are really at the crux of all of this and need tools and help, and I can provide it.
Bruce Sellery: I reference some industries where working from home is like the easiest thing in the world. How prepared were financial advisors for this need to suddenly work from home? Do you think most advisors were caught off guard?
Ellen Bessner: I think a lot of independent advisors work from home anyway. The IIROC advisors, not so much. They go into their offices and they have computers and all kinds of helpful information that flies from the firm to them. But I do think that the working at home issue is a lot less of a concern for the independent network and as well… I think they’ll adjust well to working at home. I think that the bigger challenge is dealing with their clients and how to do that.
Bruce Sellery: Well, we’re going to talk about the client piece, we’re going to talk about teams and we’re going to talk about security and compliance. Perhaps we should begin there. In your first book, Advisor at Risk, you’ve got a whole chapter on working from home. I’m sure you’re updating it in your mind right now. And you talked about some of the security measures that advisors need to follow. Even things as simple as making sure no one has access to their work laptop. Tell us about some of the measures that advisors need to take at a very base level to ensure that their home office is secure.
Ellen Bessner: You don’t want to leave information accessible for other people to read in your home. So, if you have to work in your dining room table or your kitchen table or somewhere where people are around, have a discussion with them upfront and say, “Look, these are unusual circumstances and I’m hopeful you’ll respect the privacy of my clients and give me some space and not get too close to them.” Which we shouldn’t be doing anyway… In terms of letting them see any private information of your clients.
Bruce Sellery: How do you navigate the confidentiality of client calls if you’re working in close proximity? Do you need to banish your spouse to the basement if you’re having calls with clients?
Ellen Bessner: Well, I wouldn’t do that. I would go and just take my phone call and my notepad to my bedroom and I would close the bedroom door. And you could sit on your bed and have your conversation. Or, get some of the other people to move to another area. Phone calls are very key. You need to be alone for your phone calls and you need to be making copious notes to protect yourself for later.
Bruce Sellery: Documentation is enormously important. To mean, this is the air you breathe every single day, of people needing to reference back to those documents for cases that you have to deal with in the courts. Is it the same as before or are things different because people are working in a different physical environment?
Ellen Bessner: So, you still want to make sure that you put all of your documentation away at the end of every day, if it’s an area that you’re working in that people are walking through. So, you have documents that… pages of stuff that you need to shred. In the normal course, you would just take to the shredder at your office, or there’s a shredding arrangement at your office. You want to put those in a separate bag and eventually go to a shredder. Hopefully, you’ll be back to work at some point and you’ll have a bag of shredding to put in the shredder. Those are the kinds of things that you want to be thinking about. Who would have access to these documents after either I’m done with them or while I’m using them.
Bruce Sellery: Your second book is called Communication Risk: How to Bridge the Client-Advisor Gap to Protect and Grow Your Business. One of the realities of communicating in times of crisis is that it’s different. We can miss things. We can communicate in a tone that we might not have communicated in a couple of weeks ago, just because of the circumstances and the strain that people are under. What would you say to advisors in terms of communicating with your clients, given now that they aren’t seeing them in person and they may well be having those conversations while they’re trying to keep a 10-year-old amused on YouTube?
Ellen Bessner: So, it’s very important to communicate with your clients and email is not enough. There are some people who are in self-isolation. There are older people who are living alone. Now more than ever, you should be picking up a phone and calling your clients, particularly those who you think are isolated from other people and don’t have a spouse or a family member at home. And they will understand if there’s children talking in the background. They will understand if there’s noise in the background. That’s just the new life we’re living right now.
The first call should be, “How are you? How’s your family? How’s everybody working out? Are your children at home or your grown children abroad? Is everybody safe? I know you must be worrying about… Well, just about everything. And we don’t know exactly how long this is going to go for, but you should know I’m here for you.” And then, suggest some very bright things to share with them as I’m doing with my advisors who have subscribed to my e-alert. We’re all in the same boat.
Bruce Sellery: Is there a… You are 100% right. And I think a lot of advisors listening to this are thinking, “Jeez, I not only need to make those initial calls and have those conversations that you just outlined, but also maybe I need a e-alert of my own and I need to figure out a way to do that.” And there are compliance requirements around that. What insight would you share in terms of how advisors communicate in a broader, a more mass-oriented way that will keep them on side of compliance?
Ellen Bessner: So, I think the mass emails are not that effective for these individual clients. I think the personal touch is absolutely key. To the extent that they want to send out a mass email, it does have to be compliant. It does need to go through compliance for their tick mark to make sure that it’s acceptable. And I’m sure compliance is ramping up on that area. And if they’re not, then the advisor should be asking their compliance department, “So, what are we doing to adjust to this so that I can get these emails out?” I do think the voice and the personal touch is absolutely crucial right now.
Bruce Sellery: There will be clients, there have been and will continue to be clients out there who want to run for the hills. Is there anything you would do differently today than you would have done a month ago, if a client were to say, “I’m out. Get me out of these equity markets. I can’t handle it anymore.” Again, from your perspective as a lawyer, is there anything about that sell-it-all message from a client that we need to really highlight, put a fine point on?
Ellen Bessner: I think that’s an excellent question. And I don’t want to trump compliance departments. So, I think that’s a great question to ask their compliance department. So, in these circumstances, should our response be any different than it would have been before this pandemic?
So, in the past, most advisors would try and convince clients to remain. They would remind them that their risk tolerance is consistent with the investments that they’ve been in. But today, clients may want to move to cash. And so, I think that it would be wise for advisors to reach out to their compliance department and say, “Should we try and encourage clients to stay in their investments just like we would have done before? Or should we take their lead and allow them and encourage them or concede that, yes, okay, let’s move to cash?”
Bruce Sellery: The question that I think is relevant and is about as doomsday as we can ask, but it’s relevant, is there will be financial advisors in all likelihood who become sick at this point. How do they… And what are their responsibilities from a legal framework to ensure that that file, that that client’s portfolio is receiving the attention it needs if an advisor is unable to do so personally?
Ellen Bessner: So, that’s a great question. Now, every dealer under IIROC and MFDA and OSC had to have a plan, right? They had to have one in place. That was an absolute requirement, a contingency plan. And so, what the advisors should be doing right now without any delay is planning for that by reaching out to the dealer and saying, “If I get sick, who are you going to buddy me up with to ensure that there is somebody else to catch my clients and keep the business running?”
Now, you may have a licensed assistant who hopefully you’ve distanced yourself from physically. So, if you get sick, they don’t get sick. And so, that’s obviously a very wonderful option. And then, if you work completely on your own, then you need to have the dealer suggest somebody who you trust and whose views are similar to yours, who can help your clients get through this.
As you said, Bruce, there’s teams in place. So, a lot of IIROC advisors, for example, have teams and a lot of MFDA and OSC guys have teams, guys and gals. And so, they should be having something in place so that they’re checking in with each other every day. And so, if somebody becomes unwell, then the others can be popping in and taking up where they left off.
Bruce Sellery: Ellen, thank you so much for joining me on this very fast-moving and ridiculously insane topic. And good luck with working from home. Ellen Bessner, a litigation lawyer at Babin Bessner Spry, the author of Advisor at Risk: A Roadmap to Protecting Your Business.
Ellen Bessner: Thank you, Bruce.
Bruce Sellery: We’re going to take a brief break. And when we return, what does it take to lead your team effectively from home?
Patrick Kramer: Tremendous amount of communication for both our people and for our client, for people to understand that what we’re trying to do here is really drive service in a different way and take a look at this as an opportunity to really do things differently.
Bruce Sellery: Patrick Kramer will be our guest. He’s the CEO of BDO Canada.
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Bruce Sellery: In a service-oriented business, clients come first. But the only way to deliver a great client experience over time is to ensure that you are leading the team to deliver it. With most of this country operating remotely right now, financial advisors have an additional and unfamiliar challenge, how to lead their businesses effectively while working from home.
Joining us now is Patrick Kramer, CEO of BDO Canada, a professional services firm with many different advisory practices including wealth management. Hello there.
Patrick Kramer: Hello, Bruce.
Bruce Sellery: How sophisticated was your remote workforce before all this started?
Patrick Kramer: Well, we’ve been investing in our ability to work remotely for a while now to provide flexibility for our people. But to be honest, Bruce, it wasn’t tested until last week when we officially closed our offices across the country. And that’s like 140 locations will be closed and it was a big test day one.
Bruce Sellery: BDO is a service business, right? It’s a service business, like financial advisors are service businesses. What makes that more difficult than, say, you’re running a call centre or something like that?
Patrick Kramer: I think all of the people that are going to be listening to this podcast will understand that a service organization needs to have a good relationship with their clients. And that usually means face-to-face contact and a personal relationship with individuals.
And when that is not there, it’s a challenge. It’s a real challenge for organizations, small and large, to be leading in that capacity, but it’s something that everyone has had to do in the last number of days. To find a way forward to have that connection with clients and with our own people to be honest. And, make it an energized and engaged situation for all parties.
Bruce Sellery: There are lots of different definitions of leadership out there. One definition is that leaders envision, enable and energize. What would you say is different about leading a remote team and what’s the same? And you’ve been doing this, given that you’ve got operations all across this country. What’s different about leading a remote team?
Patrick Kramer: I mean, it is really different. Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed having face-to-face contact. We have over 4,000 people in our firm and I travel and I visit them. So, in this contact, it’s so important to go back to some of the basics in terms of how to lead. So, what I did at the very outset was create an overriding objective upon which all decisions that we’ve been making since then. And the overriding objective that we created was the health and wellbeing of our people and our clients and every decision anchored around that.
But I communicated that to everybody. I said, “This is the base upon which we’re going to go forward in this uncertain time.” And once I did that, people bought into the decision-making process and understood where we’re trying to go. And then, beyond that, it was just a series of tremendous amounts of communication for both our people and for our clients. For people to understand that what we’re trying to do here is really drive service in a different way and take a look at this as an opportunity to really do things differently.
And with the clients, we had to give information about the same kind of thing, but also look at that and say, “Listen, we can do things differently. We can find ways to service you.” So, engaging people has been a challenge, but over communication, as all leaders know, in times of crisis, it’s absolutely crucial. Because people are feeling uncertain, right?
Bruce Sellery: Sure.
Patrick Kramer: They’re fearful, right? So, they want to have information. So, it’s important to be leading in that way.
Bruce Sellery: Financial advisors can work in very different operations. Small, independents, they can run with one other person, right? To big firms, such as yours, with lots of colleagues and service providers like tax and estate planning and a whole bunch of it. You talked about this vision that you created and connecting with your team to deliver it. In brass tacks, how did you do that? Did you have a virtual town hall? Was it in e-alert? Was it 4,000 individual conversations on the phone?
Patrick Kramer: Well, you’ve got all mediums need to be used. And we all know that email is limited in terms of its effectiveness, especially today, we’re all… We’ve been overloaded before this occurred and we continue to get emails today. So, what we’re really trying to do here is incorporate different types of ways of communicating.
So, using video at all possible times. Doing calls with people, smaller teams, really important, so that people can connect and understand what’s going on and have an opportunity to participate. I just finished a call with all my partners just minutes ago, Bruce, with 480 partners and with a Q&A session at the end. And boy! Did they have questions for me!
Bruce Sellery: I believe it.
Patrick Kramer: Yeah, so I’m answering their questions live and on the spot, whatever it might be, and managing their uncertainty about how we’re going to be navigating the future during these times. So, I think it’s really important to use all types of mediums.
But also, what I’m seeing here, Bruce, is the people within the office locations are coming up with their own ideas about how to do things. They’re creating a little bit of fun. They’re having coffee chats, virtual coffee chats. And they’re not talking about business. They’re talking about walking the dog or their kids or those types of things. And they’re having virtual drinks after work and all those types of ideas. And they’re doing beard growing contest and… My god!
Bruce Sellery: So, everyone’s learning on the fly right now. And enabling a team in some ways has become much more complicated, in part because of the technology, but in part because so many of us are trying to keep the kids busy while we’re on a conference call. My 10-year-old came into my home office while I was doing a national radio interview and wrote me a note about finding her lost headphones case. She’s so excited. I’m like, “That’s great, honey. I’m kind of busy.”
How can leaders enable their teams most effectively. So, it sounds like you’ve got some grassroots stuff. That’s great. And in some organizations, it’s like we need the capital to order headsets for everyone or laptops or… How would you recommend financial advisors think about enabling the team, given that many of them are really caught flat-footed here?
Patrick Kramer: Yeah, they are. I mean, it happened so fast, right? And we work hard flat-footed. Even our organization, as prepared as we were, we didn’t have enough laptops and headsets for everybody at the time. So, we moved quickly on those to enable that and I think that’s key. You need to give them the tools and making sure that they have those things. They remain connected to your organizations along the way.
But I’d also encourage… I mean, the things that we’re doing from our perspective is, while things are happening grassroots, is we created wellbeing initiatives. We know people are under stress. We want to make sure that they can take advantage of calls to organizations that can help them if they’re feeling particularly stressed out. But really creating these small pods of people where they can work together, talk about it. If they have HR concerns or human resource issues, we have opportunities to do that.
I did a video for all of our people. I just did it this week and it just got rolled out to all the people from working from home. So, at my kitchen table, what does that look like? But everybody in my firm saw that, what it looks like for me. So, I just did a video. I just used my iPad. I sent it out to all of our people and I’m getting all sorts of positive comments because they realized I’m in the same boat that they are. I think those are the connection points you have to build on and say, “Great, we’re all in this together and we’re going to find our way forward. And it’s not ideal, but these are ways of doing it.”
Bruce Sellery: Well, I think you’ve really touched on the third part, this energize idea. It sounds like you’ve got lots of ideas on how to energize your teams. I want to look ahead to this or past this early phase where we’re figuring it out, our mood is pretty high, to the weeks and potentially months ahead where things are tougher. Not only in terms of people’s mental health but also the real consequences of the illness side of the pandemic.
And also, some of the tough conversations that may need to occur as decisions get more complicated, as people lose their jobs. What do you see being required to lead from home when the tones inevitably shifts darker? All right, maybe not inevitably, but in all likelihood there’s going to be some tougher days ahead.
Patrick Kramer: And again, leading from home, because there’s not that face-to-face contact, it is tremendously harder. And the feeling that people have being isolated in their home, it’s going to get worse. So, leading in that context over time, as you say, we don’t know when this is going to be done. We were just following the governments and health authorities, just like everybody else is. And one of these days, we’re going to come out of hibernation and we’re going to be talking to people.
But it is important to be honest with people about the business, about how we’re doing, talking about things, talking through things. But I do know that in our service business, and I think financial advisors especially, the connection points that we all have with clients are important connections. And this is the work that drives our business and the people we employ. But it drives the work that all of our people do and the people that are listening to this podcast.
Those client connections, they need to find a path forward. They need to talk it out. They need to talk out their issues with key advisors. And this is where we have a real important role along the way that we can help. And I believe if we do this properly and as it subsides in the weeks to come, we can move forward from this, leading in a different way but be stronger as a result. Leveraging all those technologies.
But the key thing is to have those conversations along the way. Ultimately, that’s the best leadership that we can provide from working from home. Talk things out. Finding a way forward. Being honest about things. Don’t sugarcoat things as well. I think that’s really important, especially and during these times, but also finding a path forward.
Bruce Sellery: One hundred percent. Patrick, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.
Patrick Kramer: Thanks, Bruce.
Bruce Sellery: Patrick Kramer, CEO of BDO Canada. His take on leading from home.
That’s it for this episode of Prosper, the financial advisors podcast from Advisor’s Edge. We would love to hear your comments, your questions and your topic ideas.
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