For financial advisers, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic presents a dual challenge – with advice firms needing to quickly adapt to remote working while simultaneously supporting their clients to manage the financial impact of the pandemic.
Technology plays a key role in supporting this transition. There are a range of tools available to support remote and digital ways of working, but some advisers may be unaware of the many options available to them, as well as the long-term benefits of taking a digital and data-driven approach to practice management and client experience.
Let’s break down the key tools at an adviser’s disposal to manage their client, team and business operations, as well as exploring the key considerations in setting up a successful digital operating model.
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF STRONG DATA PRACTICES
Successful digital transformations don’t start with technology. They start with data. Trouble is, all too often, there’s a real absence of it.
It might seem an unusual problem to have when we live in a world where an unimaginable amount of data is being generated. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), it’s estimated that by 2024, over 110 zettabytes of cloud storage will be required simply to deal with the amount of data generated by AI-enabled automation and smart devices.
To put that into perspective, a zettabyte is one billion terabytes. Or one trillion gigabytes. Given many of us will recall early personal computers had a memory capacity of about 250 megabytes, it is almost impossible to fathom the amount of data being generated and captured everyday.
So now that we have all this data, what do we do with it? And as advisers, why is it so important?
Data holds the key to important insights into your business and your clients. It needs to be put at the heart of any transformation — to know where you are now, where you want to be, and where to focus.
The challenge is, many advice firms are still in a phase of data transition. From paper to digital and from unstructured to structured.
Increasing regulation and reputation risks have understandably kept many firms focussed on data protection and compliance (the things that must be done), leaving little opportunity to consider data for business efficiency and competitive advantage (the data advantage).
When it comes to data, the key things to consider are:
- Where do you store your client and business data?
- Is it easy to access your data?
- Do you have a single source of truth?
- Are files digitised and stored in a secure cloud-based solution?
While there’s been a lot of discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in recent years, it’s important to remember these concepts are quite a way off for most financial services firms. What’s more realistic, and useful, is understanding the data you have in your business and ensuring you have a system to capture it, store it and handle it in accordance with privacy laws and other legislative requirements.
Good data management is also the bedrock of embracing a digital advice model.
2. AUTOMATION – POWERING WORKFLOW
Once a sound data management system has been put in place, the next area to look at in the digital operating model is the automation of business processes.
Thinking about systems and processes is unlikely to get many of us excited. But it’s critical to the success of any business, and never more in an environment where people are working in a dispersed, remote way.
Before technology can be applied to manage and automate workflow, advice firms need to first have a clear understanding of what the optimum experience for clients and employees looks like.
Once processes and responsibilities have been clearly defined, advice software such as Xplan can be applied to automate tasks, manage the flow of work throughout the business and track activities to completion.
Alerts can be set up to identify processes that aren’t being followed properly. Powerful data analytics software can also be plugged in to proactively scan for risks and issues before they become a problem – including red flags such as identical strategies applied to all clients, spikes in revenue, elderly clients over –invested in growth assets and evidence of fee-for-no-service.
3. DIGITAL CLIENT ENGAGEMENT – OPTIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES
The traditional financial advice model is predicated on the need to build strong client relationships. Traditionally this has been done face-to-face however in the current climate this is largely no longer an option.
The good news is, there are a range of digital tools available now, to support advisers in continuing to service their existing clients, as well as reach out to new clients in need of advice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen video conferencing tools and apps come to the forefront. In fact, video conferencing apps saw a record 62 million downloads in one week in March, 2020 alone due to the pandemic.
While we may be familiar with FaceTiming family members and hosting virtual gatherings with friends, how comfortable are advisers with using video conferencing for clients?
Video conferencing presents a powerful opportunity for financial advisers to talk ‘face to face’ with clients, without needing to be in the same room or hopping into their car to drive to see them. Clients can join using their device of choice (e.g. laptop, tablet or mobile), and multiple users can also join simultaneously. Screens can be easily shared to talk through objective and goals review and tracking as well as any documents that need to be authorised by the client.
Perhaps most useful for financial advisers is the ability to record the video and discussion, and append it as a file note in their financial advice software – providing an record of advice to meet compliance and regulatory obligations, as well as the ability to share it back to clients who may want to revisit key concepts or recommendations.
Client portals enable advisers to meet the increased need for client communication in an online, secure, efficient, cost-effective way.
Advisers can stay in touch through direct instant messaging, as well as broadcasting news and updates to their entire client base. This could be handy as the COVID-19 situation develops, by guiding clients through important updates relating to Government announcements or keeping them informed and on-track throughout market volatility.
Advisers can use a client portal to ensure they maintain regulatory obligations in a simple and efficient manner. For example, if advisers have recently completed Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority (FASEA) requirements and need to update their financial services guide (FSG), they can simply add the new document to the client portal and click a button to send a communication to all clients.
Additionally, with many people now staying home as much as possible, getting to a Post Office to send signed documents may be difficult.
By encouraging clients to upload documents into the secure storage feature within a client portal, advisers can alleviate a common pain point, as well as provide comfort to clients that their personal information is secure and protected.
When it’s not appropriate for people to be in a room together to sign a document, digital and e-signatures are an excellent alternative. These allow your clients to safely and securely sign documents using any device.
Whether it’s gaining authority to proceed with or manage insurance claim applications – digital signatures make it easy to execute on behalf of clients, without the need for face-to-face meetings or lengthy delays, caused by sending hard copy documents back and forth.
While nobody can predict how the current crisis will play out, it’s clear that some businesses, including financial advice firms, have fared better than others in continuing to operate with minimal disruption. While some advice firms have been working towards digital and data-driven ways of working long before it became a necessity, others may only have begun their journey. The good news is that it’s not too late for any advice practice to get up to speed by reviewing their technology strategy.
There are significant long-term advantages of transitioning to a digital advice operating model. These include:
- Efficiency: Digital tools enable advisers to provide advice to clients faster, while at the same time increasing their ability to communicate and engage with clients quickly and easily;
- Cost reduction: Investing in the right technology tools and systems can result in significant savings in the long run – either reducing the need for adding employees or enabling them to service more clients in a more cost-effective manner;
- Simplifying compliance practices: Using digital tools and having a single source of truth for data makes it much simpler for advisers to meet compliance and regulatory obligations. For example, conducting a client meeting via video conferencing and saving the file directly into financial advice software like Xplan is a stronger piece of evidence than a handwritten note in a paper file somewhere; and
- Scale: When done in the right way, adopting a digital operating model will enable advisers to reach and secure new and broader client demographics – for example, time-poor or young clients, people living in different geographical locations.
In summary, the current climate represents both a challenge and an opportunity for advisers to review their current operating model and identify opportunities to automate, improve and digitise ways of working.
Not only will this support the ability to continue to service clients throughout the current pandemic it provides significant long-term benefits when it comes to efficiency, reputation management and scalability.
Emily Chen is product lead for wealth management at Iress.