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The idea of a cosy face-to-face chat with a financial adviser while he or she guides you through your plans has been impossible during the pandemic. Social-distancing rules mean finance professionals have had to switch to online meetings with their clients.

That has brought many challenges, but created opportunities too. One key benefit is that it cuts down on travelling time for both parties, says Keith Richards, chief executive of the Personal Finance Society.

“Virtual meetings can save advisers and their clients hours of commuting, which is great for saving the environment and converting [the time saved] into other activities,” he says. Over video, advisers can share their computer screens and easily view documents.

Kim Spence, an independent financial planner based in Leeds, agrees that it saves time and can be helpful for sharing documents, but thinks online meetings lack the personal touch. “A lot of our job isn’t just talking through report and numbers, it is about building a rapport with a client which can be more difficult online,” she says.

Some firms had already been thinking about online meetings and say the pandemic simply accelerated those plans. “We had been talking about online meetings for some time but we were always nervous about how our clients would feel about the change,” says Svenja Keller, head of wealth planning at Killik & Co.

She says the switch has been positive. “Clients are in the comfort of their own home, with access to paperwork in case they need to clarify a specific detail.” There’s an added benefit, she reckons, as clients can easily involve other family members which would have been more difficult if they all had to travel to a specific location.

The sudden switch to online advice has effectively forced people to become computer literate quickly, reports north Devon-based chartered financial planner Felix Milton. “It has enabled more clients to videocall their adviser,” he says, although that brings the challenge of ensuring that due regulatory disclosure is maintained. “But this can be overcome fairly simply with written correspondence follow-up.”

For some, using the technology can be daunting. “The haunting words ‘you need to turn the microphone on’ have been heard more than a few times by everyone now,” points out James Herbert, senior wealth planner at Sanlam UK. He says there have been issues with the compatibility of computer equipment and levels of expertise.

“Some clients have contacted me for help over the phone to get the meeting link or resolve connection issues, but battling through this with them has been rewarding and shown them that they can also use the technology to engage with family and friends, which has helped with the isolation many people have felt this year.”

From his base in Newcastle upon Tyne, financial planner Jamie Bogle says the pandemic has helped his firm pick up clients from across the country and in and around London. “Geographical boundaries are no more,” he says. “We’ve onboarded some great clients since the pandemic started who are comfortable with technology and would prefer to receive our service in this way.”

The online technology has changed the length of meetings and they’re now much quicker, with much less small talk, he says. But that’s not necessarily a good thing: “The rapport building is much harder when the meetings aren’t face to face. I’m finding that instead of a couple of long meetings in the office, I’m now doing four to six meetings with a client to try and get to the core of their issues.”

Doing the meetings online can also slow the flow of paperwork, warns Christian Tomaszewski, financial adviser with London’s Timothy James & Partners. “The process of ‘onboarding’ new clients and completing the process from start to finish has lengthened significantly,” he says. “Clients take longer to return forms that would usually be completed in person and platforms and providers are taking longer to process forms.”

But that should improve when we return to more normal working patterns and when we do, online meetings are going to be here to stay, says Adam Rideout, financial adviser at Foster Denovo. Advisers were occasionally making use of video conference meetings prior to the pandemic, he points out, but given the experience of the past 12 months it “will perhaps be the preferred method given the flexibility and efficiency it brings”.

But whether there’s a return to face-to-face meeting or greater use of digital technology, he thinks the fundamentals will remain the same.

“That means ensuring we are communicating with clients effectively, by regularly keeping in touch with them, making sure they are able to voice any concerns they may have and continuing to guide them with advice on topics such as estate and inheritance tax planning to writing or updating their wills.”

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