Tuning in to tele-advice

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The trend toward remote communication gives savvy advisers the opportunity to improve their service and effectiveness — and their scale

Dr. Tony Weiner is not a technology buff. As head of outpatient geriatric psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital, his job is counselling older adults who are learning to cope with the challenges of age. Some are losing their cognitive abilities, and all seek the benefits of Weiner’s reassuring personal style. COVID-19 forced Weiner and his patients to interact remotely — and he had concerns about the efficacy of this approach. Would his patients — especially the oldest — be willing and able? Could he deliver the same level of service and care?

Welcome to the new world of “tele.” Remote communication is now a cornerstone of our daily lives. In our two families, we are managing multiple business, social and educational interests via Zoom. Steve’s son is doing his high school classwork remotely, as well as driver’s ed. Kevin’s daughter is continuing to teach tap dance. We are hosting remote happy hours, birthday parties, board meetings and cooking classes. Who knew? Of course, it’s not the same, but in some instances the results are surprisingly good.

Weiner is now a believer. Most all of his patients have embraced the new format. Many had already learned to FaceTime with their grandchildren, so they had some experience communicating via a computer screen. Weiner has heard from many patients how much they appreciate the ability to talk without the need to travel to his office. For some, the commute into Boston has become a three-hour effort with traffic and parking hassles. Now they are able to relax in the comfort of their own homes and dial in to their time slot. Not only are many of his patients less stressed, they can be more flexible about the time they are available, which works for Weiner as well. And they are less likely to cancel or reschedule.

Todd Zeidenberg is an adviser in Connecticut with more than 30 years of experience. His practice spans the typical industry demographic, with clients mostly older than 55. The median client age in the wealth management industry is now north of 65, and the baby boomer midpoint is 64.

Beginning in March, Zeidenberg moved many client sessions to video with good results. Some clients initially favored the telephone but a more general use of video brought more of them to that format over the past few weeks. Zeidenberg found it interesting that the video sessions were generally shorter than many of the telephone conversations, which were stretching out longer than he had expected.

Tele-advice and tele-medicine are here to stay. Tele-medicine has been used to service remote areas for years. Virtual treatment rooms permit a doctor to visually examine patients, check vital signs and monitor progress. In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile phones are often the only way to connect with professional health care.

Crises accelerate trends already underway, and remote communication has taken a giant leap forward in a short time. With the tipping point breached, there is opportunity for savvy advisers to improve their service and effectiveness – and their scale. Tele-advice is the leading edge of a growing trend in support of digital advice tools that improve the consistency of results and allow advisers to serve more clients.

We see the future of planning converging with the forward march of digital tools. We are watching resourceful advisers and willing clients work together at a new level of convenience for both parties. There are some interesting lessons learned that have promise to further drive tele-advice, including better support for a concept we’ve long advocated — the unbundling of planning.

Clients consume most of their professional services and health care à la carte — one topic or incident at a time. Too few clients and advisers make their way through the often onerous demands of full financial planning programs. Unbundling the planning program gets more clients into a better process and paves the way for the next solution.

Here are the features of a good tele-advice, unbundled planning approach:

  • Variety and choice. Provide clients with a menu of topics they can choose to discuss with you.
  • Education. For each topic, there should be some basic background information and ways to be better prepared to discuss the topic.
  • Sharing. At minimum, a web link directly to the topic ensures the client is not floating around the internet, where even basic keyword searches can unleash a flood of choices as well as advertisements for competitors’ offerings.
  • Pre-work. Ideally there should be a questionnaire or other basic data collection process that tees up the follow-up meeting with you. Set up that meeting with the client being more informed and better prepared.
  • Follow-up actions. Make sure to make progress. Focus on specific action items and give the client a sense of accomplishment. Better to have several efficient meetings with definitive results. You can always add meetings and topics — don’t undermine a winning process!

Follow the trail of simplicity and convenience uncovered by Dr. Tony Weiner and Tom Zeidenberg. The pandemic has created urgency around solutions that are aligned with health, family and real life. The “connection” sought by so many people is ironically easier to create with the help of digital tools, and advisers can address more issues for more clients with more efficiency and consistency than ever before. It’s a silver lining in the cloud hanging over us all.

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