This week I was talking to a group of advisors who were all working at home and we were using SEI’s video conferencing system. It was clear that everyone had become much more at ease with video: everyone was showing their faces, using their cameras and were relaxed. It quickly became an upbeat conversation, with joking as well as the work getting done. It was nearly like we were physically together.
The group talked about how they were doing personally and professionally in this time of COVID-19. There was a lot of empathy for people who are not able to do what our profession has been able to do: work from home (WFH). But the conversation also became one of looking at the possibilities. Adversity often breeds innovation and new thinking by necessity. This group quickly moved into that mode.
The most immediate example of this is software that allows you to WFH, communicate with your firm’s personnel and engage your clients effectively and caringly. This post will highlight software that is enabling these interactions and which stand out in these crazy times.
At SEI, for years, we have talked about the Techno-Advisor — a financial advisor who uses technology well to improve the client experience and the relationship. We wrote a whitepaper on this a few years ago. Surprisingly the concepts are all the same — but how they are implemented and adopted has improved.
Within the Advisor Firm: Messaging Platforms
Advanced advisor firms are now using workflows to pass tasks around their organization. Complementary to workflows is the technical ability to communicate with your work colleagues, a task historically done via email or face-to-face meetings. This is done via messaging platforms; think of it as "Text for business."
When you, your operations team and Client Service Associates are all at home, the messaging platform can become the best way of quickly interacting without distracting your team from their current work. It’s great for multi-tasking.
One of the best known messaging platforms is Slack. Slack is known for being very simple and easy to use; you simply set up your profile and begin to chat with other people in the firm. Slack is typically used by medium to larger firms (greater than ten people). If used well, it reduces the amount of email considerably. Slack has a free version, although even when you use the more advanced version the cost is nominal.
Because of its ease of use and set-up, Slack is sometimes used by crisis groups as a way of communication. For instance, in a reaction to COVID-19, mayors and governors created a Slack channel to communicate how they were dealing with the virus.
There are other messaging platforms, but Slack is the market leader.
Advisor Firm to Clients: Video Conferencing
Currently, few advisors are meeting their clients face to face. Gone are the hugs and the warm handshakes.
How do you recreate this? Video conferencing has improved immensely over the last few years. It is now easy to use, flexible and inexpensive. The platforms all have the same model of a free version and a more comprehensive version for a reasonable monthly fee. We have been talking about video conferencing for several years as one of the arrows in your quiver for client interaction. Right now for a lot of advisors it is the only arrow.
There are many good video conferencing platforms on the market. The better known are GoToMeeting, Webex (which SEI uses), UberConference and Join.me. Apple’s FaceTime and Google’s Duo are also used, but mainly for personal rather than business interaction. Skype gets a special mention (more about it later), but it is typically also used in a personal setting.
However the software that has hit its moment in these socially-distanced times is Zoom.
Zoom is suddenly everywhere. There are a few reasons for this:
- It is very easy to use (essential for interacting with technology-challenged clients)
- Very reasonably priced
- The firm went public, recently in April 2019 and is singly focused on video-conferencing
- It has been integrated with many other platforms
- It has jumped to the retail market with groups of friends using it to interact
For instance, I have been part of a dinner club for over twenty years. Four of us get together and catch up a few times a year, always at a different restaurant. Last night our restaurant was our own homes, our own bottle of wine, our own dinner and a Zoom meeting. It was not quite the same, but it was close.
There is a current security issue with Zoom called "zoombombing," where unauthorized people get access to a video-conference and then jump into the meeting to make objectionable comments or show distasteful images to the meeting attendees. Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan has publicly apologized for the lax security and privacy capabilities of the product that led to zoombombing. As an advisor, it is worth fully understanding the current risks of using this popular product, and whether you want to use an alternative. Here are some tips that allow you to configure today’s version of Zoom that significantly reduce the risk of zoombombing.
The Everything Advisor Laptop
I may have saved the best for last. There is software now that does messaging and video conferencing and a lot more AND is totally integrated into your key business software: Microsoft Teams.
Microsoft is normally an effective follower in the technology market — they see how someone else does it and then they come up with a very good version of the same thing. However with MS Teams, they have led and created an office suite that has just about everything that an advisor needs to interact with their clients and their own firms. The suite is Apple-esqe in concept: a very tightly integrated technology stack with everything working seamlessly together. The one difference is that MS Teams does integrate well with many other third party applications.
It is an interesting story. Microsoft bought Skype back in 2011 for $8.5 billion. That gave them the video conferencing building block. They then nearly bought Slack in 2016 for $8 billion. Instead Microsoft decided to build the messaging building block themselves. Then along with the core business platform Microsoft 365 they had all the key components for their vision. In July 2019, MS Teams had 13 million users and by March 2020 44 million.
Here are some of the key features of MS Teams:
- Full integration with MS Office 365
- Messaging channels, which allow you to message specific groups of people to chat and quickly find anything in the chat history
- Operates on multiple devices: mobile / computer and Apple / Microsoft
- Video conferencing, which uses an integrated version of Skype for Business. This can be used both internally and externally to your organization
- Easy (and improving) dashboard for seeing your teams and the work they are doing
I talked to two of our advisor firms to find how MS Teams works for our industry. Emily Silva has a broad role at Eagle Wealth Management, covering all the systems for the firm. The firm has nine people in their office in Bend, Oregon, who have a range of ages and computer skills. They have been using MS Teams for a year. Everyone uses MS Teams as it is now integral to the operation of the firm. Emily highlighted the good integrations (they use Redtail) and that they were able to eliminate other software as they focused on MS Teams.
With clients spread out over a large territory, they have an annual client review model of one face-to-face meeting and at least one other video conference. Because they have clients with different technical skills, Eagle Wealth went the extra mile and created a short two minute video to show clients how the conferencing software worked. When Covid-19 occurred, the firm was able to move to their homes, and work the way they had already been working, only dealing with the inevitable band width issues on the video conferencing.
Tim Golas of Spurstone is based in Connecticut. They have two advisors and a total of four people. Spurstone’s technology approach was affected ten years ago when they were flooded. The firm decided at that point, that they would have a model where they would go entirely portable (everyone with laptops) and as much software in the cloud as possible. When MS Office 365 arrived they moved to that and they have now been using MS Teams for a year. Tim highlighted the following as key or interesting attributes:
- MS Teams is inexpensive and an extension of their existing MS Office infrastructure
- Their phone system is integrated to it
- The collaboration software is easy and effective. When showing a document to a client you can draw on the page to show them where they should be looking.
- Finding anything is very easy with the search function
- Everything can be recorded or saved, making compliance easier.
- The firm’s operations is now transparent. You can see very easily what each team is doing.
Now that he is at home, the experience is making Tim think. In this new world, you have more options and flexibility. What should the office be used for? Is the office mainly a comfortable and technology-abled way to meet clients? How do you distribute the work? How do you encourage more remote collaboration? Can you have a more flexible working from home strategy?
Working from Home Opportunities
Along with the high anxiety of today, this is also a time of growth and opportunity. These technologies are working well today and have just gained more importance. The genie is out of the bottle and when (not if) we return to normal, they are here for the long term.
Emily Silva, Eagle Wealth Management, Tim Golas and Spurstone are current clients of Independent Advisors by SEI. None of the other firms discussed is associated with SEI or its subsidiaries and SEI does not endorse the use of any of the products mentioned herein. Always check with your firm's compliance department before implementing any new technology solutions.
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