Downright Revolutionary: But Is Today’s Technology Enhancing Client Interactions?

If there’s one statistic that illustrates what Eric Clarke characterizes as perhaps the biggest shift in both the rapid pace of technological change and the way in which it’s changing professional life, it’s this one: today, 7 percent of World Wide Web traffic comes from mobile devices—smartphones and tablets—but it’s projected that by 2014 the majority of web traffic will be coming from mobile devices, not from PCs. “In a word,” says Clarke, the CEO of Orion Advisor Services, “this is huge, revolutionary.” Clarke also notes that the Dropbox application, for anytime-anywhere file sharing, recently crossed 25 million users, another statistic of the get-on-board-or-get-left-behind technology wave advisers should be riding. “That one falls into the ‘You, my adviser, surely don’t expect me to scan that 20-page printed document, do you?’ category,” says Clarke. “The whole point of all this new technology is to simplify your clients’ lives.”

On the other hand, there is the mild lament from planner Scott Kahan, CFP®, president of Financial Asset Management Corp., about the costs of the tech revolution. And he doesn’t mean in dollars. In the 1980s, when Kahan was teaching the CFP certification curriculum at New York University, a communication skills unit was part of the CFP 1 class, but has since been dropped. “It was all about asking the right questions, what to look for in body language, and how to listen and really hear what the client was saying,” says Kahan. “You just can’t get that through an email, a text message, or the client going onto a portal. How many times have you unconsciously ascribed a tone of voice to an email or a text?”

Norm Boone, CFP®, founder and president of Mosaic Financial Partners, is a confirmed, longtime user of technology (in 2004, Boone founded IPS AdvisorPro, an online software application for customized investment policy statements). But he agrees with Kahan that reading body language and facial expressions is crucial to effective client communication and that all the new-fangled technology in the world can never replace “the moment.”

“It’s the ability to sit and be quiet, to allow silence for two to three minutes while the client thinks about your question and considers what he or she wants to say, to come to clarity,” explains Boone. “There is plenty of technology that gives me the ability to look something up for a client. But there’s no gadget or program I can use to look up how to respond to a client’s look of distress or ‘aha’ moment.”

Gadgets Galore

In November 2011, FPA conducted a survey about members’ use of new and emerging technologies. It’s fair to say that, along with results from other recent industry surveys on technology, the results are starkly different from what would have been seen just one or two years ago. Then, most financial advisers had little familiarity with what today has become the tablet that may rule the world. And a “smart” phone? Four or five years ago that adjective in front of the word phone would have seemed laughable. Today, there are 90 million smartphone users in the United States, with the number expected to rise to 107 million in 2012, according to eMarketer.com. Tablet users will jump to 55 million, up 23 percent from 2011. What eMarketer calls today’s “technology stack” is built on three opportunities: activities (communication, media consumption, commerce), platforms, and devices. This technology stack is ripe for mining by financial advisers to significantly alter the ways they are engaged and communicating with clients and prospects. In fact, many already are getting traction with client interaction through mobile devices.

Twenty-four percent of the 407 financial planners who took FPA’s Adviser Technology Use & Benefits survey are using a tablet professionally, and 71 percent are using a smartphone. One-third are now using videoconferencing, and 29 percent are texting. Of those using tablets, 49 percent are doing so for client presentations, 53 percent for professional development, and 78 percent to keep up on news. Remarkably, almost half of those who use a tablet for client presentations say they are using only a tablet when delivering presentations out of the office. Laptops, it appears, are staying behind. And why not? For planners, data visualization and presentation are key—unlike a laptop, which is not really a collaborative tool, a tablet encourages the client’s engagement through its easy touch, pinch, and sweep features. Obviously, not all planners are Apple enthusiasts, preferring other tablets, but the iPad now accounts for 97 percent of all tablet web traffic in the United States, a truly astounding figure.

Satisfaction with the Technology Takeover

When asked to describe the impact of technology on their client interactions, almost three-quarters of planners in the FPA survey report that client satisfaction has increased. That appreciation seems to go both ways—71 percent of advisers say the technology they use for professional purposes has increased their satisfaction with their client interactions as well. In addition, 73 percent of planners report that office efficiency has increased, and 58 percent say that satisfaction with their work-life balance has increased.

Other surveys corroborate the rising use of mobile technology. Released in December 2011, Financial Planning magazine’s annual tech survey shows that 40 percent of respondents own a tablet, with another 33 percent saying they plan to buy one in 2012. In its first survey in 2007, Financial Planning didn’t even ask about smartphones—a BlackBerry was just a BlackBerry back then.

In the second quarter of 2011, tech firm ByAllAccounts surveyed more than 250 financial advisers and also got some eye-opening responses. Between February and May 2011, one out of three financial professionals bought a tablet computer; 42 percent of the survey respondents own a tablet. Advisers, says Cynthia Stephens, vice president of marketing for ByAllAccounts, are really using tablets to increase their business productivity: “More than 80 percent said they had seen a productivity rise,” says Stephens. “A smaller percentage, but still 50 percent, said the tablet has enhanced client meetings. Where they previously might have been using mobile devices in what I call the ‘get started’ mode—primarily just to be more responsive and available to their clients—they’re now beginning to take tablets to the next level. Of course, a lot of the future adoption is dependent on financial partner firms developing more apps for tablets.”

The survey also revealed that use of some business and productivity apps isn’t as high as use of news apps—67 percent regularly use apps for news and market updates, whereas 25 percent use a mobile version of CRM and 22 percent use an app for institutional trading account management.

Stephens points to another survey her firm did, one that asked what high-net-worth investors really want from their advisers. More than 60 percent of what the survey calls “at-risk” investors (those not satisfied with, partially satisfied with, or neutral about their advisers) said their adviser doesn’t communicate often enough, a factor that would influence their decision to find another planner. “You can net that finding out to this: ‘Get in touch with me more often,’ even if it’s an electronic alert on time-sensitive information,” says Stephens.

Is Real Client Communication Lost to Efficiency?

Advisers like email and texting for obvious reasons—they’re fast, efficient, and immediate. George Taylor, CFP®, president of Temenos Advisory, has quite a few clients who are doctors, extremely difficult to get hold of by phone during the workday. Electronic communication has solved that problem for Taylor. But the firm still has clients who don’t use electronic communications, forcing the firm to maintain relationships via a printer, a fax, and the post office. These clients also force advisers to examine the reasons clients don’t want to communicate that way, and Taylor doesn’t think it’s generational.

“We tend to forget that electronic communication is typing—and some people are just insecure and uncomfortable with that,” says Taylor. “Mobile, electronic communication is certainly about efficiency. I want to be more efficient, but not hyper-efficient. That would mean treating every client the same way, and that’s just not the way it should be.”

Electronic communications also involve the issue of “screen personality,” says Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University who has done research on the psychology of communications and technology for 25 years. Behind screens, we’re all different, according to Rosen—we think, speak, and respond differently than in person. Even videoconferencing is not as effective: “You can’t see the hand fidgeting or the foot tapping under the table,” says Rosen. And receiving communications via typed message on a screen can sometimes be downright perplexing. “Think of the different meanings in an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Is the client alarmed? Excited? Angry? Bursting with enthusiasm?” asks Rosen.

He explains that clients who don’t want electronic communications may actually have higher meta-cognition—the self-awareness to know how their own brain responds to interruptions and distractions. Instead of trying to persuade the client to adopt your style—insisting on texts, emails, and flashy graphics on a tablet—the better philosophy is simply: “More power to them—this client really knows what he or she needs in order to receive the knowledge the adviser wants to give them.”

Survey responses about improved efficiency aside, planners may also be fooling themselves about their ability to multi-task better through technology. According to Rosen, multi-tasking is a myth, with research dating back to the 1950s supporting that. It’s really serial-tasking—jumping from one task to the next, with the short attention span often compromising our ability to fully engage on any task. “You may actually be getting less done in a day when you try to multi-task,” says Rosen. “And the biggest contributor to the myth of multi-tasking is technology.”

An End, or a Means to an End?

Is the purchase of a tablet—or tomorrow’s super-sophisticated smartphone—an end in itself, or a means to an end? In other words, says Stephens, it will be interesting to see what percentage of planners will eventually use a tablet as a replacement for a desktop or laptop. It’s one thing to buy a tablet and justify its use for late-night online reading or to appeal to that very special but tiny group of clients an adviser just knows will be seduced by the latest and greatest, and another thing entirely to adopt a radically different business model that relies only on mobile devices.

More than ever, with something new and exciting out almost constantly, planners need a 30,000-foot, long-term tech vision, says David Drucker, CFP®, a financial adviser and technology consultant who produces the annual “Technology Tools for Today” conference with Joel Bruckenstein. Advisers can no longer be content with just thinking about which computer to buy this year, or which cool new apps to download. “Technology has seeped into every aspect of business life,” says Drucker. “It’s incumbent on planners to have a vision and a process to guide them on purchase decisions, but, more importantly, to guide them on how their purchases may alter their business model. One of the considerations many fail to make is whether they should even be purchasing hardware and software or, instead, outsourcing an entire operation, especially functions such as portfolio management.”

“As for tablets and their use for client interactivity, this is really a ‘wow’ time in the industry,” says Drucker. “The tablet is one more step on the path of searchable and retrievable digitized information that can result in a paperless office.”

Some planners are using new technology not only to create paperless offices but also to create virtual offices, expanding their firm’s footprint to distant states. Taylor’s Temenos Advisory has offices in Connecticut, Maryland, and Georgia. When Taylor opened the newest office in Georgia, he affirmed the fact that technology is now paying real dividends. Taylor was able to open the office and get it up and running in less than two days with voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP), smartphones, a remote desktop server, collaborative file-sharing software—everything needed for a new branch. All of Temenos’s employees have company-supplied smartphones, and Gmail allows complete integration with calendars. And the virtual approach frees Taylor from feeling like he has to find new talent for his company in a specific area. But Taylor still holds regular in-person meetings with clients—and no technology is allowed in the room. “Sometimes we have a notepad, but usually it’s just two faces across a table,” he says.

Norm Boone’s virtuality is similar—his advanced use of technology allows Mosaic’s director of investments to live 250 miles away from Mosaic’s office in San Francisco. And despite the fact that all Mosaic employees now have a Kindle Fire, and the 2012 plan is to use tablets more often in client meetings, all client meetings are held in Mosaic offices, not in a mobile environment. It’s partly professional image positioning, according to Boone, and partly that “clients are really not going to share the most sensitive and personal information with you in a crowded Starbucks.”

Client demographics also play a role. Mosaic’s clients tend to be older and somewhat less tech-savvy. Younger clients, though, are often intimidated by a printed planning document, says Jude Boudreaux, CFP®, of Upperline Financial Planning in New Orleans. Boudreaux uses an iPad in client meetings, often at the client’s home or office, allowing Boudreaux to control the pace and the focus.

“Nobody’s flipping five paper pages ahead of me. They can have a paper copy, just not at the meeting,” says Boudreaux. “Those old-fashioned print documents feel very irrelevant to many people. The financial plan should be a living, breathing document. With mobile technology, we can actually make changes in a real-time environment.”

A Long, Long Wave

As for what’s coming down the road, both near term and in the more distant future, Taylor reminds us that most of us over age 30 once said, “Facebook? What a stupid thing.”

Existing technology, after further enhancements and wider adoption, will continue to affect planners’ practices in new ways: advanced collaboration technology will bring a feels-like-you’re-there sense to remote meetings—think of it as videoconferencing on steroids. Clients will benefit from more comprehensive information-sharing through document vaults, project management software for seamless teamwork and client communication archiving will become more robust, and clients may even have their own discussion boards on planners’ platforms, with the planner’s role as intellectual facilitator.

“Who knows what’s coming?” says Taylor. “From a confirmed technology adopter’s viewpoint, that is incredibly exciting. Whatever is on its way to us could take our businesses to places we simply can’t imagine.”

Apps such as Evernote are excellent for total archiving of a client meeting, according to Daniel Paz, director of technology solutions for independent broker-dealer Investacorp, and planners can expect to see more apps similar in functionality. Evernote allows you to type notes into your smartphone or tablet, record the audio, attach a picture (for example, a client’s document) or video, tag your meeting location through GPS, and sync it to your account through a browser. “It’s a true ‘living note,’” says Paz.

Clarke thinks clients will drive much of what planners adopt. “If the client insists on a meeting outside the office and comes with a tablet, that’s a pretty clear indication that client wants to see the adviser with a tablet and provide access to information through a portal or software like Dropbox,” says Clarke. “By the same token, if clients don’t seem to respond to these things, advisers must always ask themselves, ‘Who is this meeting for?’”

Clarke also believes that more extensive adoption of technology is going to prove itself as a marketing differentiator for advisers. Orion is now offering a custom-branded mobile app for advisers—for example, the “Smith Financial Management Firm” app, complete with a firm’s logo, colors, customized reports, video commentaries from the adviser, and metrics on client views and downloads.

Whatever the pace of new devices and applications, technology analysts and historians say that despite the instant gratification from something new to a user, technology’s most profound effects are truly a long, long wave. The report “Technology’s Long Wave” from The Futures Company points out that the automobile platform—a platform being more than just a particular technology and, instead, something greater than the sum of specific technologies that make it up—emerged from Henry Ford’s first assembly line in 1908, 25 years after Daimler’s first vehicles.

The “social impact” of new technologies emerges later than we think. First, there is new technology used to do old things; much later people start to use it to do new things in new ways. To wit: the suburbs, parking meters, and edge-of-town retail and business parks are relatively late manifestations of the auto technology system. The Futures Company report also reminds us that the shape of businesses adapts to the shape of the technology, and not the other way around, and that any organization or profession must take great care not to let relationships with customers, clients, employees, and other stakeholders blur into a morass of bytes. In other words, without “edges,” in the eyes of their clients, financial planners could become their fancy devices and their data, and not their clients’ life guides, coaches, and sources of wisdom.

By Shelley Lee for the March 2012 issue of Journal of Financial Planning Magazine. Shelley A. Lee is a business writer and communications consultant based in Atlanta.

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Comments
One Response to “Downright Revolutionary: But Is Today’s Technology Enhancing Client Interactions?”
  1. Fransiska says:

    Thanks for sharing. Technology indeed has high influence to our life. And we should consider it as an aspect of our financial plan

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