Virtual handshakes

Written by: David Craik Posted: 19/04/2021

BL72_relationships illoThe pandemic has overhauled the ways in which wealth managers liaise with their clients. But what has the impact been on those relationships? and which of these new-found ways of managing relationships will stay post-Covid?

Everyone is a homebody now. Even in regions that have been less affected by lockdown and even for people who have continued to work in offices, Covid-19 has steered us online – to shopping more online, using more delivery services and communicating through conference calls and digital tech.

For many, digital services such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype have become a part of everyday life. But what does it all mean for the relationship between wealth managers, other financial services professionals and their clients?

As the pandemic emerged, many firms moved quickly to shift the focus of their client contact from face-to-face meetings or over the telephone, and to remote video conferencing, explains Annabel Bosman, Head of Relationship Management for RBC Wealth Management International.

“RBC was moving toward more of a remote working model before the pandemic and so when lockdown came, we were soon up and running with digital communications systems,” she says. 

“That helped us be very proactive in ensuring that clients also adapted quickly to the new virtual world.”

Going fully digital has created more opportunities to enhance client understanding, but it has also delivered challenges, such as reading body language on the small screen.

“You need to be more focused on the subtle cues that perhaps you wouldn’t notice in a face-to-face meeting,” explains Katherine Waller, RBC Relationship Manager, Head of New Sales Delivery for WMI.

“Maybe a client looks to their left when they are being thoughtful or picks up their phone during one part of the conversation. It lets you say, ‘Okay. Is there something else you would like to explore that you feel is more important?’”

There is also more consideration given to the words clients use – how often they use them and what they mean in a sentence structure.

“Understanding verbal cues gives you insight into how people are feeling and thinking,” Waller explains. “We have been running training sessions with our managers on how to best identify these communication differences and respond.”

Given the unique nature of digital communications in the pandemic, another trend that has arisen is that interactions have become shorter.

“Doing a number of video calls every day can be very intense and tiring for managers and clients alike. You are making eye contact during the meeting without breaking it,” says Bosman. “We have cut meetings into bite-size chunks, which is actually enabling us to go deeper and often to glean more information.”

Danielle McIver, Vice-Chair of ICSA: the Chartered Governance Institute’s Guernsey Branch, has also picked up on this trend.

“Virtual meetings are much more focused than face to face,” she says. “There is less general chat and people tend to stick to the agenda. Generally, the meetings are shorter as a result.”

Better attendance

They also tend to be better attended than pre-pandemic physical meetings. RBC has identified that with more time spent at home during lockdown, spouses and children who may not have been present in wealth management discussions before are becoming far more engaged.

Clients either want to have their spouse present, or at least to state their spouse’s priorities and objectives as equally important in decision-making. Previously, relationship managers had to delve much deeper for this sort of information.

“Quite often a husband and wife will both be on the call, something we found hard to organise face to face. That was either down to the logistics of getting them both in the same room at the same time or because there is a reticence among family members to talk about money,” Bosman explains.

BL72_relationships illo2“Now it is much easier. We’ve even encouraged parents to invite their children on the calls. It has brought to the fore topics that were not being discussed before by the whole family.”

That includes succession planning and trusts, as well as life insurance and wills.

“People are thinking more about their own mortality now,” says Bosman. “When we speak with our clients, we lead with what is important to their family’s future. We ensure that is protected before we start thinking about investments.” 

Karen O’Hanlon, Senior Director, Private Client Services at JTC in Jersey, believes clients are ready for this new approach because they have ‘stopped the hamster wheel’.

“Nobody is dashing from A to C like they were any more,” she says. “It has led to more ‘What if?’ conversations, such as whether they have the necessary wills in place and if all their global assets have been protected.

"A lot of the chats have been over family governance, allowing the younger generations to speak freely about how they want assets invested, such as in tech and bioscience. We are also seeing more discussion around philanthropy.”

Handling divorce

Another ‘difficult’ topic to gain more attention is that of divorce. “The pandemic has sadly shone a magnifying glass over relationships, and we’ve had to ensure that structures are in place to facilitate that,” O’Hanlon says.

That can have a bigger emotional impact for a manager than before the crisis, because client relationships have become much more personal. 

“Every Zoom call, you get to see what your client’s home looks like” O’Hanlon says. “The gap between you has closed. We are all going through this Covid-19 nightmare together.”

Waller agrees that mutual fear and uncertainty has led to more engagement and empathy.

“You are not in a controlled environment any more. Children, pets, parents or postmen can appear at any time on screen, and it is interesting to see how people react,” she says.

“Maybe a child comes in and overhears their parents talking to us. It’s clear by their response that they haven’t told the child about the value of the family wealth. That helps me as a manager in building bridges and finding common ground much quicker than before.”

One area where going fully digital has not helped, however, is with onboarding new clients. “[New clients] want to press the flesh and look you in the eye. They know that when choosing a trustee, they are forging a lifetime relationship,” says O’Hanlon.

“From our perspective we want to know how genuine the client is. Their requirements may be complex, and you need to get comfortable with their story. You can’t replicate the rapport, warmth and understanding you get from a face-to-face meeting.”

Here to stay?

So, what can we expect as the cavalry of vaccines and better testing arrive? What parts, if any, of this new virtual world will remain post-pandemic?

What seems clear is that increased remote working at least is here to stay. 

A recent Institute of Directors survey found that 74% of company directors will be keeping increased home working after the pandemic.

McIver says: “There are likely to be more virtual catch-ups with existing clients and occasional face-to-face meetings. But with new clients, nothing beats that handshake at a first meeting to build the initial rapport. Without the familiarity, strategic discussions with clients and boards can be cold or perceived as sales-like, and may not be as well received.”

McIver also believes that virtual fund management events will be consigned to the past. “Networking is so much harder to do at an online event as you don’t have those coffee or lunch breaks to mingle and find new business,” she says. 

RBC believes there will be a blend of different methods, including face-to-face meetings, phone and video calls.

That is because of practical advantages, such as the increased use and acceptance of digital signatures and electronic identification and verification.

But it’s also because managers don’t want to let go of the relationship benefits from going virtual.

“The closer engagement will continue to flourish,” says Waller. “When you’ve seen each other with children hanging off the side of the chair, it is difficult to go back. So, I will still have the odd video call at home with existing clients and propose that with new clients we also go virtual for one of our first meetings. Relationships have become more honest during the pandemic.”

Indeed, RBC has found that clients have been asking more personal questions of the managers, including how they are coping with the crisis both at home and work.

“Their conversations are much softer,” explains Waller. “They are also more interested in how RBC is contributing to the community and whether our ethical and cultural values match. 

“We are emphasising this much more in our client meetings because there is nothing more important than how we are helping our own staff and society during these difficult times.” 

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