Adapting fast to stay relevant amid Covid-19 has become key for certified financial advisers. Picture: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV
Adapting fast to stay relevant amid Covid-19 has become key for certified financial advisers. Picture: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to force us to adapt to a more digital way of living, consumers are becoming more comfortable engaging with a financial planner online. In turn, financial planners have had to develop new skills and work on their soft skills like never before.

Hester van der Merwe, a financial planner who holds the certified financial planner® (CFP) accreditation at Ultima Financial Planners in Johannesburg, says among the things she has learnt is the importance of showing vulnerability.

“We used to be so focused on being professional that we left ourselves out of the room when engaging in financial planning. Being professional still holds true, but Covid-19 has taught me to share a little more of myself and to show vulnerability. This serves to ground the relationship and connect with clients on a deeper level.”

During the hard lockdown Van der Merwe says she called as many clients as possible to check in on them with no specific financial topic in mind. This helped arrest her clients’ feelings of isolation and made it easier for financial discussions to flow from there.

Although she has been focusing on using financial planning to help people meet all their lifestyle goals — known as lifestyle financial planning — for a long time, she says the application of it became even more important during Covid-19 “when personal needs had to be met and fears allayed”. 

What makes perfect sense for a portfolio on paper might be totally wrong for someone when you take their lifestyle and personal goals and objectives into consideration, she says.

Adapting fast to stay relevant has become key, Van der Merwe says. A key part of Ultima’s offering was what clients experienced when visiting their offices, and adapting from 100% office-based to 100% online was therefore a steep learning curve, she says.

Johan Swart, a CFP with Old Mutual in Klerksdorp, says you don’t need to be in the same room to make a personal connection with a client. “What’s more important is being present and really listening, having empathy,” he says.

During the first two months of lockdown Swart made time to speak to every one of his clients. “Some calls took two minutes and others an hour, but with every one of them I know it made our relationship much stronger.”

Financial planners often feel compelled to find solutions to their clients’ problems, he says. But the conversations which made the biggest connections were the ones where he spoke the least, Swart says.  

Henri le Grange, a CFP with Old Mutual in Kimberley, echoes this: “The importance of listening and being empathetic has been highlighted during this time. The more I listen to what matters most to my clients, the better I can serve them as a coach on their financial journey and craft a plan that truly speaks to their heart.”

You don’t need to be in the same room to make a personal connection with a client. What’s more important is being present and really listening, having empathy.
CFP® Johan Swart 

Since emotions play such a big role in attention, learning and decision-making, Le Grange says he’s learning to be mindful of how his clients are feeling and giving them the space to feel what they need to feel.

Hendrik Spies, a CFP and the principal of Spies Praktyk, a Malmesbury-based practice under Old Mutual Personal Financial Advice, says while he misses physically meeting with clients, technology allows for interactive meetings where he can share his screen as if he were sitting alongside a client.

Spies has a client in his 60s who suffered a stroke recently. The client, who has been left with impaired speech, didn’t want Spies to see him, but was concerned about his finances.

“I messaged him and told him we could have a meeting via MS Teams, where he could see me but I wouldn’t be able to see him. He could also have his wife speak on his behalf. Before long, his wife phoned me to say he was expressing some positivity. We had our meeting and even though he couldn’t speak, at the end of the call I heard him say ‘thank you’.”

Spies says he loves to help and the technology that he has now become reliant on has enabled him to grow his client base far beyond Malmesbury.

Tailored advice

Gareth Leonard, a CFP at Netto Invest in Cape Town, says the pandemic has reinforced the value of the advice process. While a lot of financial planning is consistent, it is key to tailor some of it to a person’s individual circumstances.

As our investors’ portfolios have been set up in their best interests, they were flexible and as people faced uncertainty about cash flow, we were able to reduce or stop debit orders and implement payment holidays, he says.

Leonard says he has done a lot of work to get investors to do nothing. “In times of increased uncertainty the temptation for knee-jerk reactions rises considerably.“

Communication

Ryan McCaughey, a CFP with Hewett Wealth in Cape Town, says clear and regular communication  proved vital in managing clients’ expectations during the pandemic.

“We’ve continued with our weekly market updates and found that our regular reviews and feedback sessions with clients play a major role in managing their concerns leading up to and during Covid-19. Clients are encouraged to contact us should they want to chat through any concerns, be it investment, personal or business related.”  

McCaughey says Hewett prides itself on ensuring that clients truly understand each component of their financial plan and are educated along the way. “This ensures that they get the bigger picture and have a clear road map for the future,” he says.

• The financial planners interviewed for this article are all contenders in the Financial Planning Institute’s Financial Planner of the Year 2020 competition. The winner will be announced on October 27.

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