How to provide financial advice remotely

Technology has brought an end to the need for financial planners to be in the same room – or even in the same country – when providing advice to clients

It's widely known that technology is reshaping the way financial advisers run their businesses.

One area that is experiencing a significant transformation is the way in which advisers actually communicate with and provide advice to their clients. Tools such as Skype and GoToMeeting, and even the wider use of email, have meant advisers and their clients no longer need to meet in the same room to have a professional relationship.

According to the managing director of Queensland-based advice practice Atlas Wealth Management, Brett Evans, advisers now have the "tools to get out there" and interact with clients in a whole new way.

They can now maintain relationships with clients who live in rural areas, who move interstate or, as in Mr Evans' case, who even live in another country altogether.

Technology has allowed Mr Evans and his business – which specialises in servicing clients who live abroad across Asia, America, Europe and the Middle East – to work with clients but without needing to see them in person.

Technology has also allowed him to continue to run his business while on the move, he adds.

"When I am overseas visiting clients, business continues back in Australia and it's important that I maintain contact with the office," he says. "This contact can be either via email or Skype and I can be anywhere in the world yet still be connected with my team.

"Also, my clients rely upon my updates and comments on a number of topics, so by being able to work remotely I am still able to service them. This ensures that wherever I am in the world that advice can still be provided in a timely manner."

Working remotely has allowed Dean Holmes, director of Absolute Wealth Advisors – who is now UK-based – to continue running his business with his business partner, Paul Barrett. With the tools now available to him, he can be anywhere in Europe and still be able to service his clients, he says.

Another adviser who successfully works remotely is Dianne Charman, director of AMP Financial Planning-aligned practice, Jade Financial Group.

Many of Ms Charman's clients have relocated interstate in the time that she has been advising them, and she also has a number of clients that live in rural areas.

Using Skype, GoToMeeting – and even relying on the good, old-fashioned phone – has allowed Ms Charman to stay in close contact with members of her client base who have moved around over time.

"A lot of my clients moved interstate but still want to remain my clients," she says. "But I have always given my client the opportunity – that if this isn't working for them – to [choose] another adviser in their local area."

Benefits of working remotely

For these three business owners, using tools such as Skype, WhatsApp, GoToMeeting, and even simple things like having frequent email conversations, have provided many benefits.

  • Engagement

While all three say that working remotely has allowed their businesses to continue servicing clients either overseas or interstate, Ms Charman adds it has also led to even greater engagement with her clients.

Advisers do, however, need to put in the effort to ensure clients are properly engaged and do not fall by the wayside, she cautions.

"The secret ingredient is that both parties put the effort in, so it is no different to a personal relationship," she says.

"If you don't ring your friends, if you don't talk to them and make the effort, well then don't expect them to be as engaged.

"If you put the effort in, I find that the relationship will be as strong [when continued remotely]."

  • Downsizing

Mr Evans says one of the benefits he has seen from working remotely and using technology to service and interact with his clients is being able to downsize.

"When I travel to see clients, all I need is my iPhone and Surface Pro 3," he says. "These two items have made my work leaner and more efficient and I can virtually do everything with them."

He adds that while on the move, he does not need to worry about having to use his office to meet clients, noting he can use cloud technology to do everything he requires.

"Whether there is local wi-fi in a café – which is what I often use – or you use your mobile phone as a personal hotspot, you are able to access all of your systems without the need for traditional architecture," says Mr Evans.

"Previously, I would only be able to respond to emails when in wi-fi range – say, at a hotel.

"Now I can respond to clients when I'm in a taxi and even go so far as placing trades and completing documents digitally."

  • Time and money

Downsizing business operations – and even the need for an office at all – can bring further benefits for advisers.

According to Mr Holmes, advisers who choose to work remotely full-time will, in fact, see "a lot of cost savings".

"The rent in city CBDs is expensive – if you don't have to have meetings with clients and face-to-face, then that is a big saving as you don't have to pay rent and you don't have to rent a boardroom," he says.

"If you rent a desk in the office – that's OK. And renting a desk is cheaper compared to renting a whole office space. So you can get some good savings there."

"But you also have to think about the savings for the client," he says.

"It can cost $80 to park in [the Sydney CBD]. So, if I invite a client for a meeting here, it is going to cost them $80 for them to come and see me."

Ms Charman agrees that clients can see significant savings from advisers' working remotely, especially when it comes to travel costs, adding that her business has also become more efficient as a result.

"If it is a phone-based interview with a client, I don't allocate as much time in the day, whereas if it is a face-to-face meeting, it takes a lot more time in getting to know people," she says.

"It is still a really good conversation, just much quicker."

With time such a "precious commodity" both for clients and advisers, being able to work remotely, whether via video call or phone, can mean both are able to save time, adds Mr Charman.

  • Access from anywhere

Having access to one another becomes a critical issue once an adviser decides to work for a client remotely.

Technology not only bridges the distance between two parties who are unable to meet face to face; in fact, it makes them far more accessible.

While time differences can be a factor, Mr Holmes says he can still get in touch with clients irrespectively of where he is in the world.

"I have had meetings in Turkey and so I had phone calls in the hotel in Istanbul and had no issues. So it works fine from wherever you are in the world," he says.

Mr Holmes adds that with everyone becoming more and more comfortable with technology, the idea of holding a meeting via Skype or GoToMeeting is hardly ever met with resistance. Clients have more than likely become very familiar with using Skype or other video calling tools with children who have moved overseas or, in a professional context, with colleagues working overseas.

"It is just becoming more normal as the world is becoming more global. People are getting used to it," he says.

"Every financial adviser has clients that aren't in [their home city or state]. Whether they were once in Sydney and then they have moved, we all still manage to maintain those relationships and they don't come into the office, and they don't know where you are."

"Most people are getting used to working with service providers that you don't see face-to-face," he adds.

The frustrations

As with any form of technology – or any way of doing business – there are always challenges and advisers working remotely are no exception.

For Ms Charman, the biggest challenge is internet connectivity.

"[It] can really be an issue," she says. "For my remote clients that are more regional, that can certainly be a challenge. Phone is the best way – don't even try to use Skype."

Mr Evans faces a similar challenge, although with his clients based in China it is not an identical one.

"The main issues we have come across with connectivity [are] in China," he says.

"Previously, we used Google Apps to power our email server; however, with the continued problems between Google and Beijing, there have been a lot of problems in accessing these emails, even when using a virtual private network.

"We have since migrated our emails to Office 365, which has alleviated this problem. We also rely heavily on social media when communicating with Aussie expats, which can also present a problem in China."

Advisers who want to work remotely full time, and without a physical office, will face challenges with paperwork, he adds.

"Clients are going to need to send you stuff. You need to send off applications and reports come to you, so you need to think about where is all that going to go and how does it become electronic," Mr Holmes says.

"You have to have a solution for post. And you have to have a solution for getting applications sent to clients and things like that."

Despite these challenges, says Ms Charman, the key to making it work is by ensuring that advisers maintain a strong relationship with their client.

"If you are relationship-focused, I don't see how anyone can't do it," she says, "but you also have to think about your business model – does it fit in with your business model and is it workable?"

"You don't want to offer something and be unable to deliver. Clients are really relying on your service [so] work out whether it is adding to your service or taking away from it."

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