Financial advisers who cannot conduct virtual client meetings may be hurting their own competitiveness.
"Every year, more and more clients are adopting the idea that we don't need to meet face to face," Alan Moore, founder of Serenity Financial Consulting LLC, said at the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors' national conference in Philadelphia last Thursday.
Conducting client meetings online, where clients can view the adviser and the adviser's computer screen, is more efficient than in-person meetings, which require one or more participants to travel to the meeting spot, Mr. Moore said.
The efficiency and flexibility make it easier to get busy clients to meet via their computers, advisers said.
For instance, Mr. Moore has a client who lives three miles away from him whom he's never met face to face. The client is a stay-at-home dad who doesn't want to pay $50 for a babysitter just to come into the office.
"This isn't taking a step back in client service," Mr. Moore said. "I can give clients the same, if not better, client experience using virtual technologies."
Mr. Moore is attracting the type of clients with whom he prefers to work — those who are "lifestyle-focused" and value their free time and family time. Many clients like it so much, he said, that "now I can't get them to come to my office."
Clients love not needing to travel and they cancel virtual meetings less often than face-to-face meetings because of the flexibility they allow, said Michael Kitces, partner and director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group Inc., at the NAPFA conference on Friday.
"When we started doing video chat, our clients were like ‘Thank God,’ because all of their other professionals were already doing it,” he said. “Clients who work love it.”
Financial adviser Rick Kahler of Kahler Financial Group said he works remotely with about 50% of his clients — and not just younger people, he said, noting that the average age of his clients is about 58.
"More and more clients are going to expect you to offer this service," he said.
Advisers often use free Skype software to connect with clients because many older clients use this technology to communicate with their grandkids. Mr. Kahler said he has found Skype to be too unreliable, choosing instead to pay about $50 a month for GoTo Meeting. He said many clients don't even turn their webcam on during meetings because they don't want to be seen, "but they want to see us."
Mr. Moore said Google hangout is the most reliable free technology for online conversations. He also uses another free service, Join.me, for screen sharing. Advisers can direct clients to Join.me and give them an access code to make them privy to the adviser's computer screen.
Adviser Chris Jones, founder of Sparrow Wealth Management, said he uses Sharefile to send files to clients securely. He praised virtual meetings for providing "a lot of flexibility in your practice."
Mr. Jones, who meets with about 97% of his clients remotely, said that because his clients were accustomed to virtual meetings he was able to pick up his business and move to Las Vegas to be closer to his children, who live with his ex-wife.
He said it was harder to get long-standing clients used to virtual meetings than it was to bring new clients on board with it. Even today, he takes a couple of trips a year to Eastern Pennsylvania, where he has some clients who still want to see him face to face once a year.
And there are certain clients with whom virtual meetings just won't work, advisers said.
For example, Mr. Jones had to give up his biggest client, for whom he managed $20 million, when he moved to Las Vegas, because that client wanted almost weekly in-person meetings.
Mr. Jones said that because he uses virtual meetings, his clients also are likely to refer more of their friends to him because it doesn't matter where those friends live.
Certainly, the younger advisers of NAPFA, a group known as NAPFA Genesis, believe that virtual meetings increasingly will be demanded by clients. They are investigating ways for the NAPFA search function to identify which advisers offer virtual meetings, said Mr. Moore, who is chairman of NAPFA Genesis. He said that more than half of his clients come from adviser searches through the NAPFA website.