Advisers often say, “We’re in the relationship business.” More than ever, that includes remote relationships.
Traditionally, most advisers served local clients. Along with periodic meetings in the office, they’d see them informally around town, which added a social dimension to the adviser-client relationship.
As more advisers operate virtually, building trust and camaraderie with clients they rarely if ever meet takes extra effort. Even the most personal video chats or phone calls may lack the impact of a face-to-face meeting.
“It can be more difficult to establish rapport when you can’t pick up on nonverbal communication,” said Ben Barnhart, a certified financial planner in Royal Oak, Mich. “So you have to listen” more attentively.
Barnhart has a handful of clients he’s never met. To solidify his bond with them, he listens to learn what’s going on in their life — and then follows up. For example, when a long-distance client happened to mention purchasing a camper, Barnhart sent a coffee maker designed for RVs.
“When you have clients you don’t see face-to-face, you gain trust by doing what you’ll say you’ll do and returning calls promptly,” he said. “But beyond that, sending personalized gifts shows I was listening to them and they appreciate that.”
Another tip for communicating with clients from afar: When conferring via video or phone, let the client drive the conversation. Whenever a client speaks, keep quiet (even if the client interrupted you). Don’t compete to make yourself heard; instead, wait for the speaker to wrap up before chiming in.
“For those clients I’ve never met face-to-face, I have to be more attuned to their tone of voice and speed of their talking,” said Curtis Bailey, a Cincinnati-based certified financial planner.
If a client responds to his question in an uncharacteristically terse manner, for instance, Bailey might sense he’s hit a nerve and change the subject. If the client starts talking excitedly at a faster tempo, Bailey will encourage the individual to continue opening up.
When advisers host clients in their office, visitors gain reassurance from the surroundings. They often see framed diplomas on the wall and meet staffers who radiate professionalism.
Absent these in-person cues, clients pay more attention to whether advisers follow through on promises, honor their commitments and retain biographical data (such as asking about the well-being of a client’s pet).
Many advisers find that millennials are more comfortable with a virtual relationship than pre-retirees or retirees. But younger clients will still lose trust in an adviser who’s inaccessible or unable to answer questions clearly.
“You build trust by being available, responsive and following through on items within the timeline you gave them,” said William Nunn, a New Orleans-based certified financial planner. “Setting the right expectation is very important.”