CPD: Five steps to client engagement in times of crisis – part one

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Five steps you can take to increase client engagement so your business survives and thrives in the ‘new normal’.

The word unprecedented has been used with increasing regularity in 2020. We started the year in the middle of an unprecedented bushfire season that continued in its ferocity. The COVID-19 virus, which initially ravaged parts of China, is now a global pandemic.

At a time when there’s an increasing (in fact, unprecedented) need for you to connect with clients, face to face communication is not possible. This article, delivered in two parts and sponsored by Zurich Australia, examines five steps you can take to increase client engagement so your business survives and thrives in the ‘new normal’.

It’s a little over a decade since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), a time that’s likely etched in the memory of most of your clients, whatever their life stage. This new crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, is likely to have rattled your clients’ sense of security and may be challenging for them, both financially and emotionally. How can you best support them through this period and, when we eventually reach our ‘new normal’, retain a thriving advice practice?

Amid the pandemic it could be easy for advisers to lose sight of those fundamental measures that help you to create, build and retain professional relationships with clients. Although it’s a new and unusual environment we find ourselves in, change is part of life; it’s important to remember, change is not new to the financial advice sector. Over the years you will have experienced countless changes, to education, legislation, financial products, technology and service delivery. There have been crises before – the GFC, September 11, the ‘tech wreck’ of the 90s.

While technology to improve efficiency and keep in touch with clients during these uncertain times is now in abundance, it’s critical to remember what clients are really looking for in a professional relationship with an adviser. Clients want to maintain their strong relationship with you, to continue receiving tailored advice to suit the times, to know you have their back. Clients want to be reassured that you genuinely understand them and their changing needs, and that you sincerely care about them.

These are needs that can be aided by technology when face to face contact isn’t possible.  However, it’s critical that you don’t lose sight of the ‘human’ components, which, when interwoven with the use of technology, fortify the client adviser relationship.

It’s important to remember that the current conditions may prevail for some time. You can’t afford to simply wait it out – it could be quite some time before things return to ‘normal’ – whatever that might be. Using this time of change and uncertainty to build stronger relationships with your clients will stand you both in good stead for life beyond the pandemic.

To help you during this transition period, we’ve detailed a series of steps you can take to engage with and reassure your clients. Like you, they’ll be learning new way to reach out to engage and connect with people; the easier you can make it, the better your relationship will be.

Step one: Business as usual

For most advisers, it’s not business as you’ve previously known it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be ‘business as usual’ delivered in a new way. By now, most financial advice practices will have implemented business continuity plans and team members will be working remotely.

Your clients will appreciate and understand that the health and safety of your staff and clients, and their families, are a high priority. They will understand the need for you to be working remotely. However, at a time when clients are feeling most uncertain and vulnerable, it’s really important to communicate your ‘business as usual’ to them.

According to the Association of Financial Advisers (AFA)[1], distressed clients want:

  • To be heard
  • To be treated respectfully
  • To get immediate action
  • To gain certainty and understanding.

You need to reassure clients that you are committed to remaining open for business, that you will continue to provide advice, deliver services and look after their financial wellbeing. If a client is due for a portfolio review, let them know how that will happen. If a client wants to revisit an aspect of their financial plan, be clear about how that will work.

Importantly, you need to let your clients know:

  • How to contact you by phone and email, whether direct or via a third party as may have been the case in your office set up
  • How face to face meetings will be managed
  • How regular updates will be delivered (more on this in part two of this series)
  • How you plan to keep them up-to-date over the coming months
  • How you can work with them to get through this difficult time.

Many of your clients will be experiencing high levels of stress – there’s a good chance that you, your colleagues and families may be feeling the same way. By demonstrating that it’s ‘business as usual’ and then ‘showing up’ for your clients, you create some normalcy from the uncertain, which can be good for both of you.

Step two: Show up for your clients

Once you have established your ‘business as usual’ approach, you need to proactively show up for your clients. By choosing to do business with you, your clients have placed trust in you and your practice, and all you have to offer. Given the uncertain environment and pace of change, it’s more important than ever that you’re there for them.

In many cases, the process of ‘doing something’ can provide clients with a sense of control, that it’s not all careering away from them, leaving them stressed and vulnerable. You are uniquely positioned to help them stay focused on the bigger picture, their long term financial goals and objectives.

One strategy is to add a financial health check-in with clients. There are a range of stressors on financial health in the current environment, ranging from volatile markets through to job losses. Clients with small businesses may be particularly hard hit. This provides an opportunity to check in with clients, see how they’re doing and where you can help. It’s a touch point that can help you build your client relationships and engage with them on a deeper level.

This financial health check-in could include:

  • Helping clients adjust their budgets – some clients may be able to save more of their usual discretionary expenditure because of the constraints of social distancing. Others may find themselves struggling because their cashflow has been reduced or completely disappeared.
  • Making contingency plans by setting up an emergency cash fund (where possible) to mitigate future job or income loss.
  • Discussing the government packages with clients – the various allowances for individuals or businesses impacted by COVID-19, tax breaks for businesses (some of which vary on state by state basis) and in extreme cases, early access to super.
  • Are there payments where a struggling client may be eligible for assistance or a payment ‘holiday’, for example:
    • Has the client spoken to their bank about putting a mortgage on hold?
    • Has the client spoken to a landlord about reducing rent for a home or business?
    • Does the client have investment properties impacted by the tenant’s ability to pay rent and are they eligible for government assistance?
  • Income sources for retirees – with the triple whammy of volatile markets, likely dividend cuts and negligible term deposit rates, what’s the optimum mix of income sources for retired clients?
  • Insurance needs – in light of this being a health crisis, are clients and their families adequately covered by relevant insurances?
  • Estate planning needs – does the client have an estate plan in place and does it need to be reviewed or expanded? Are medical or financial powers of attorney required? Has the client considered how they will manage their financial affairs should they contract COVID-19 and be unable to manage things for a period of time?

A major way to allay client concerns is to demonstrate that you’re paying attention to events and their changing needs in this uncertain environment. A financial health check can be the sort of responsiveness that builds trust.

Step three: Update your processes

The best adviser-client relationships don’t happen by accident – they are generally the result of implementing a series of robust processes.

Have your processes successfully transitioned to your new ‘business as usual’ set up?

What other processes might you need to implement?

You need to consider how you work and communicate with your team to deliver quality services, as well as how you can successfully work with clients and keep them informed in this changing environment.

Your every-day processes should have formed part of your business continuity plan. You need to be sure to test them. For example:

  • Can you and your team members access the practice’s CRM, financial planning software and other important programs from your home/remote office?
  • Does each member have adequate connectivity?
  • What face to face program will you use to communicate with staff and clients? Is it secure and has it been tested?
  • Are appropriate cyber-security measures in place at each site?
  • How is client documentation signed and stored?

Strong processes will help you build an enduring professional relationship with your clients. It’s important to design your processes so that your potential clients get to know you in a series of meetings and contact points. You need to ensure you can maintain those touch points despite not being able to meet face to face.

As such, a key component of your business processes should revolve around communicating with clients, through a variety of channels. While many aspects of your service delivery can be automated, having strong lines of communication to remain connected with your clients is essential. This will be discussed in detail in the second part of this series.

 

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Read CPD: Five steps to client engagement in times of crisis – part two

 

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[1] https://www.afa.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/Supporting-customers-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic.pdf

 

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