Talk about client expectations in the age of always-on connectivity. Milad Taghehchian, a wealth management adviser with Pioneer Wealth Group, recalls a client who needed help one weekend setting up a surround-sound system at her home. She texted an associate at Mr. Taghehchian's firm and asked her to come over and help with the installation. The associate declined the request, he said, and the firm subsequently set clear boundaries with the client to prevent recurrences.
Perhaps reaching a tipping point, advisers are starting to realize that today's communication tools are altering their relationships with clients. Whereas in the recent past, delineations between when an adviser was and wasn't expected to be available to clients were set around office hours and weekdays, technology's allowance (or demand) for constant communication via e-mails, text messages, social media and cellphones is blurring time inside and outside the office. Being mobile allows for a flexible, work-anywhere schedule, but for many advisers, it also means always being on call and risking losing time off to regroup.
This hyperconnected lifestyle is only building, and for some in the advice industry, it has become imperative to take control and set their own standards for what is acceptable. Approaches to handling the challenge vary.
Round-the-clock availability is an important part of some advisers' practices. Stephen M. Stabile, senior vice president and wealth management adviser with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, serves about 90 families and has a team of five financial advisers, two client associates and one wealth management banker. In an e-mail response, Mr. Stabile wrote that clients' travel schedules require that adviser-client contacts take place frequently outside normal business hours.
He does ask clients to contact their financial adviser, not the client associates, off-hours, however. That request stems from a desire to respect associates' personal time and the associates' need for office-based access to provide service. Mr. Stabile and his business partner — the team's senior members — also maintain a strict policy of not texting or e-mailing associates or junior advisers during off-hours and personal time.
Many advisory firms have adopted a team structure to improve client access, although the arrangements vary. On some teams, advisers share clients and support staff; others share staff but not clients.
Jim Kinney, founder of Financial Pathway Advisors, previously worked as a solo practitioner and couldn't avoid interrupting vacations to call or e-mail clients. But now he works with a partner, Luba Globerman, who is involved both in clients' financial plans and investment accounts. This client-sharing team arrangement allows both advisers to take time off without worry. It took some “training” at first to make clients comfortable with the dual-adviser arrangement, he explained, but as they gained confidence in Ms. Globerman, they began to realize they had two advisers.
Four teams serve approximately 1,200 clients at RegentAtlantic, according to wealth manager Brian Kazanchy. Each team typically has three advisers with a shared support staff of four employees. Clients work with one adviser and the support staff — the advisers don't share client responsibility. Each adviser sets his or her policy on off-hours client contact, he explained, although it's unlikely an adviser would contact support staff outside of normal business hours.
Any policy on accessibility poses trade-offs, he observed. Responding promptly off-hours earns clients' praise but risks creating expectations that the adviser always will respond quickly regardless of the time. Mr. Kazanchy maintains a flexible approach, although he's found it's often easier to contact the client immediately and ask if the request can wait until the next workday morning. That response keeps clients happy and doesn't require him to interrupt his personal time excessively.
Pioneer Wealth Management Group has four full-time staff plus support staff serving about 300 clients. The firm has a 24-hour-response policy, including weekends. Advisers set aside about an hour each day to respond to messages, and Mr. Taghehchian believes clients are comfortable with that arrangement.
“When [clients] get immediate replies, sometimes they don't respect the professionalism of the adviser or the company as much,” he said. “I see that as just something in their frame of mind. Clients appreciate the fact that we're busy and we don't necessarily have the time to reply to them immediately.”
Communication requires two parties, and technology allows advisers to control clients' access. The consensus among sources was that texting could be problematic because clients send texts at all hours. Mr. Taghehchian said his firm's policy is to avoid texting with clients and also to avoid sharing employees' cellphone numbers. Advisers can transfer their office lines to their cell phones after hours if they wish.
Legend Financial Advisors takes a unique approach to managing e-mail. All messages to and from the firm pass through a centralized e-mail address instead of individual employees' addresses. Combining the single address with a team approach ensures messages don't get overlooked, said Diane Pearson, a principal with the firm.
“This way, if I am on vacation, that e-mail is not getting ignored,” she explained. “That doesn't require me to be sitting on the beach with my phone in my hand to check to see if client messages are coming in. In many instances, a client's issue can be addressed while I'm away by another staff member.”
NO GOING BACK
Advisers interviewed for this article agreed that client expectations of constant access to and immediate responses from their advisers will continue to increase as technology burgeons. That doesn't necessarily mean advisers can or should forget ever taking time off, though. Those who already offer 24/7 access report that clients largely respect the adviser's personal time and don't abuse it. Additionally, establishing off-hours contact guidelines and using technology to control access can help an adviser retain control of the incoming message flow.
Ed McCarthy is a certified financial planner and freelance writer in Pascoag, R.I.