Op-ed: The pandemic pressured consultants to adapt and discover new methods to attach with shoppers

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the US in mid-March, there were three types of financial advisory firms: high-tech, low-tech late adopters, and companies somewhere in between.

The night shift to work from home was very different for each type. Low-tech companies transported printers and fax machines to their homes and tried to give employees the tools they need to log in remotely.

Meanwhile, the intermediate companies have figured out how to put phone lines on their phones and set up Zoom accounts. High-tech company employees just stopped commuting and fired on their laptops at home. In retrospect, that miraculous transition from working in the office to overnight zoom meetings was inspiring.

The New York Stock Exchange closed its doors and the financial markets did not miss a beat. I shudder when I imagine the chaos a global pandemic could have created for us all 20 years ago. We are fortunate today to have the tools and technology that got us up and running.

The question now is: how will traditional consulting firms acquire new clients and stay connected with existing clients in a longer remote working environment?

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Businesses building on in-person meetings in pristine conference rooms high above the downtown skyline need new business development strategies. Can these old dogs learn new tricks? Building trust with prospects and maintaining connections with current customers in a remote environment is not an easy task.

Selling financial advice is different from selling a hot new product or service. Advisors take a lot of credibility to convince investors to trust them with all or part of their money.

The average age of financial advisors in the United States is between 51 and 55 years. These pioneers built the fledgling consulting business, an industry that arose when Americans retired early, lived longer, and saved for retirement alone when retirement plans went away.

Traditional consultants connected to clients in their local communities, people belonging to the same churches, clubs and PTA groups. Clients met face-to-face with traditional consultants, either in the office or at home.

The consultants carried copies of beautifully bound paper presentations. This tangible experience cemented trustworthy relationships. Satisfied customers in turn referred friends, colleagues and acquaintances to their advisor.

The pandemic has essentially driven 10 years of technological progress in innovation-ripe areas. Comfort is the norm in the modern consumer experience today. Consulting firms are not immune to this shift in customer expectations.

A common complaint about the consulting industry is the slow adoption of technology. Paperless account opening options have been available for years, yet many advisors still rely on physical paper and ink signatures.

Client portals and cell phone applications used by consultants are known to be cumbersome with a clunky user experience. Letting go of our traditional roots means stepping into a brave new digital world.

Overall, financial advisors are also late adopters of social media.

Many counselors hid behind the veil of compliance and were reluctant to dip their toes in the water. After Covid-19, some are now jumping in their feet first.

I've seen a significant increase in blogs, LinkedIn posts, tweets, and Instagram account usage across my personal network of consultants. From the wirehouse broker that has several TV appearances to the registered investment advisory firm that creates video and webinar presentations, consultants are marketing their services online more than ever.

However, increased activity and business growth are not always related.

Digital marketing strategies require a certain "je ne sais quoi", that magic sauce that builds relationships with potential customers.

I suspect a lot of traditional businesses will work hard to produce digital content that won't connect with audiences or generate new business. These companies are at risk of being left behind in the post-pandemic world.

Social media is first and foremost social. Branded accounts don't get as much attention, commitment, or trust as individual accounts. Companies that fail to recognize the power of individual brands or whose cultures oppose the promotion of personal brands lose momentum on social media. You can't get any traction at all.

Of course, handshakes and face-to-face meetings will return in a post-Covid-19 world, but the convenience of doing business from the comfort of your home is a permanent shift in consumer expectations. That means advisors have to adapt and find new ways to connect with potential clients. However, there are no shortcuts to building trust in a virtual world.

Consultants need to devote time and resources to making this strategy change.

The paradigm shift in the field of digital marketing will determine which consultants will be successful in the coming decades and which will wither on the vine.

– By Blair DuQuesnay, investment advisor and financial planner at Ritholtz Wealth Management

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