Just as many U.S. businesses were thrown off their guard by the coronavirus pandemic, so were financial advisory practices.
Close to 1.8 million Americans have contracted Covid-19, and more than 100,000 people have perished from the disease, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Lockdowns to minimize spread of the disease have also battered the economy, with more than 40 million people filing for unemployment benefits in the last 10 weeks.
Financial advisors – many of whom are small business owners – found themselves trying to keep their businesses running smoothly, while supporting their clients and their employees.
Here’s how three practices managed during these unprecedented times.
“Hope is not a plan.”
Chris Pollard, CFP, principal of Great Path Planning in Monroe, New York.
Courtesy of the Veterans Portrait Project
It may come as no surprise that, as a U.S. Army veteran, certified financial planner Chris Pollard, principal at Great Path Planning, had a business continuity plan before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
“We hope that disasters are infrequent, but, as we would say in the Army, ‘Hope is not a plan,'” said the West Point graduate.
Situations Pollard had prepared for include a winter storm that resulted in Internet and power outages, or his own death or disability as principal of the firm, which has offices in Goshen and Montebello, New York.
Pollard’s continuity plan called for working from home or a public spot with web access, or using his cellphone for wi-fi tethering.
Since many places have been closed during the pandemic, the advisor is looking into satellite-based Internet and power generators.
Pollard moved client interactions to phone and video, even though as an “essential business” he could have kept offices open. “Many of our clients are over the age of 60 and are in a higher risk category.”
The move online has meant hand-holding for less tech-savvy clients, “but clients need to know that we’re going to take good care of them whatever the circumstances,” Pollard said.
“We didn’t wait for clients to call.”
Dennis Stearns, CFP, founder and president of Stearns Financial Group in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Stearns Financial Group
Talk about foresight.
Stearns Financial Group in Greensboro, North Carolina, developed a pandemic protocol during the SARS outbreak in 2003.
The plan went into effect when the current pandemic began. “We didn’t wait for clients to call,” said CFP Dennis Stearns, founder of the firm.
“We’ve increased client communications by a factor of three, and provided special resources via our pandemic task force, which includes infectious disease experts and scenario economists,” he said.
Nine out of 10 of the firm’s 600 clients now interact with advisors via GoToMeeting, up from 10% pre-pandemic. The rest are using the phone.
“Remote [meetings] will be more common post Covid-19 but at least half our clients are hoping we can get back to face-to-face in 2021,” said Stearns. The firm is willing to wait until a vaccine is developed to protect clients from infection, he added.
While Stearns’ employees may return to the office if necessary, albeit under stringent safety guidelines, most are working remotely until North Carolina’s infection rate starts to subside.
Colleagues with health issues or who reside with family members who suffer from them are encouraged to keep working from home, said Stearns, who expects office life to return to “semi-normal” by August or September.
“For both clients and employees, we are being realistic and forward-looking at the same time.”
An advantage by meeting virtually
Hannah Moore, CFP, owner of Guiding Wealth in Dallas.
Hannah Moore, owner of Guiding Wealth in Dallas, has a client base that consists mostly of older people considering retirement.
But half of them were already meeting with her virtually before the pandemic hit.
Guiding Wealth had an advantage pre-coronavirus because it offered the ability to meet virtually and in person.
Due to Covid-19, all client interactions are now online or on the phone. Those who preferred longer, in-person meetings are now being advised via more frequent, short phone calls.
“As meeting virtual has become the new normal, clients are transitioning faster and easier to working virtually than we had expected,” she said.
“I think some clients will continue to prefer interacting with us online, but I also anticipate that others will be happy to come back to the office.”
Either way works for Moore and Matt Fizell, CFP and operations manager at the firm.
In the end, pandemic or no pandemic, it always boils down to customer service.
“I do think financial planners who focus on the experience a client has related to their meetings will be better off, regardless of whether or not they meet in person or not,” said Moore.