Financial planning firms are still trying to figure out what to do about the on-again, off-again DoL rule, and whether robo technology is friend or foe. But my candidate for the most disruptive force sweeping through our professional space is something much simpler and less-discussed: face-to-screen technology.

It seems that at every conference I attend these days, I hear from founding advisors who have moved away from their home offices to a warm vacation location and communicate with their staff via telescreen, using one of a growing number of options to make the connection: Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Slack, GoToMeeting. Join.Me, ooVoo, Cisco WebEx, Zoom, Magnocall or Gruveo. If a key staff member relocates, the firm sets up a video capability for that person to continue working “alongside” the home office staff.

To give one example, at Searcy Financial in Overland Park, Kansas, the founder, Mike Searcy, has relocated to Naples, Florida, while his daughter, Jessica Maldonado, a company vice president, routinely dials in from Phoenix. The company’s director of marketing, Cali Gillespie, works out of her home in Manhattan, Kansas. Client meetings will have Searcy, Maldonado and staff members in the home office all on the screen at the same time, sometimes with the client husband and wife teleconferencing in from different locations as well.

REMOTE HAND HOLDING
The growing feasibility of having a virtual firm with staff located here, there and everywhere has interesting lifestyle and recruiting implications. But the truly disruptive part is the impact on client relationships, and ultimately the value proposition of the planners themselves. Just about every planning firm has had clients move away to a new state. Video technology makes it much easier to maintain those client relationships.

But there’s also an impact on local clients who no longer have to drive through city traffic to meet in person with the planning team. Instead, they can conveniently teleconference in and participate in those meetings face-to-screen.

That, in turn, means that those client conversations can be quicker and more frequent. No longer does the planner have to schedule an hour in order to justify the commute time invested by clients. They can talk about whatever is going on currently in a quick chat and get off the line — and have these conversations whenever the client has questions or issues, rather than once a quarter. This has the potential to raise a firm’s value proposition and, at the same time, lower the time commitments of a client relationship.

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How do you take advantage of this trend — or fight back against the onslaught of competition poaching on your territory? Specialization.

But, most important, think about the marketing implications of a world that is moving increasingly toward face-to-screen relationships. When you can meet with people virtually, it removes the geographical barriers to marketing yourself and your firm. No longer are you confined to working with clients who happen to live within 20 or 30 miles of your office. Now you can have close working relationships with people who live anywhere in the country — or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. I suspect somebody reading this column will someday work comfortably with clients who happen to live and work on the moon.

Just about every planning firm has had clients move away. Video technology makes it much easier to maintain those client relationships.
Just about every planning firm has had clients move away. Video technology makes it much easier to maintain those client relationships. Bloomberg News

The end of geographic barriers for you and your firm is the good news. The bad news is that virtual client meetings open the door to every other advisor in the country — or the world — competing with you right there in your market. There is no reason that an ideal client working in an office two doors down from you in your office building couldn’t be meeting virtually with a planner based on the far side of the Mississippi. With increasingly cloud-based software and automated document signing technology, the office visit is not just unnecessary; it is going to look increasingly anachronistic.

SPECIALIZATION
How do you take advantage of this trend — or fight back against the tens of thousands of advisors who might already be poaching on your territory? I think the virtual trend is going to spur another trend: specialization.

If everybody is competing for business everywhere, that means a young doctor in residency will go online and look for a planner who specializes in helping young doctors in residency — even if that person lives a thousand miles away — rather than a general practitioner who works with anybody and everybody from a nearby office building, who would have to bone up on the career and financial options of a budding doctor.

So my first advice, particularly to younger planners who haven’t yet staked out a clientele, is to identify a specialty. It could be psychographic, like show horse owners, serious bicycling enthusiasts, art collectors or sport fishermen. It could be narrow professional niches like casino card dealers, rodeo clowns, freelance artists or diplomats posted abroad.

These niches wouldn’t be feasible when you’re limited to working only with clients in your immediate geographical vicinity, but they make abundant sense in a world where clients are doing a national search for people who work specifically with individuals like them.

YOUR WEB PRESENCE
Just as important, advisors are going to have to become more interesting in their web profile. Most websites have nice graphics that depict a comfortable retirement, bios of the staff and a map to their office location.

But when clients are conducting global web searches for just the right planner regardless of physical location, they are going to be most attracted to working with planners whose sites have interesting interactive quizzes and questionnaires, YouTube videos where you answer some of the questions you’ve heard recently from clients, plus blogs on financial topics like the new tax reform proposals and how much it costs to own a pet.

They may even do their own planning on your website. Recently, planning software programs like MoneyGuidePro, eMoney and Advizr have introduced features that would allow subscribing planners to put surprisingly robust planning capabilities up on their websites, so prospects can explore their financial options before making that on-screen appointment.

If this face-to-screen trend continues to gather steam — and why wouldn’t it? — it could turn the whole planning world upside down. Regardless of the home office location, the founding planners and key staff could work from anywhere they choose, and recruit talent from anywhere and link them into the workflows and meetings.

Searcy recently told me that since he moved to Naples and his daughter moved to Phoenix, they see more of each other than they did when she was working out of an office two doors down from his.

These distributed firms will have one or more very tightly defined niches that seek clients from anywhere in the country; hold shorter, more frequent meetings with them; and build more interesting web experiences as the front door to client relationships.

For those who remember “The Jetsons,” a cartoon show in the 1960s, its “televisor” now looks like an accurate predictor of where the financial planning profession is going — or, in some cases, is already.

Bob Veres

Bob Veres

Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist in San Diego, is publisher of Inside Information, an information service for financial advisers. Follow him on Twitter at @BobVeres.