Long before the pandemic hit, the independent space was gaining traction among advisors craving greater control over their business lives along with a better way to serve clients. Yet, there’s a population of advisors who watched from the sidelines as their respected colleagues made the leap. That is, advisors who had growing frustrations with their firms’ and yearned for the freedom and flexibility of independence, but were besieged by concerns about leaving the comfort, familiarity and infrastructure of the brokerage model.
These advisors often questioned whether they had the entrepreneurial DNA to make the leap to independence; they wondered if they could replicate their firms’ platform; and, most importantly, they worried if their clients would follow them.
Then COVID-19 hit, and our lifestyles and business practices were transformed literally overnight. One day we were juggling our work-life schedules and commuting to and from our offices and meetings, while the next we were logging in remotely from home and learning on-the-fly how to operate virtually. Technology has made the necessity of being in a branch office less critical and advisors are finding themselves to be highly self-sufficient and less dependent than ever on the infrastructure of their firms.
So, while shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines may have thrown advisors into the deep end initially, a really interesting thing happened along the way: A new generation of independent-minded advisors emerged, one borne amid a crisis that no one ever could have anticipated.
A Challenge to the Status Quo
The workplace will likely look very different going forward. Already we’re hearing that several firms are looking for ways to reduce costs—whether it be by scaling back on existing real estate, rethinking their geographical footprint, or even cutting back on support staff.
And while firms are in the labs identifying ways to improve their bottom line, advisors are using this time to evaluate whether their firm has been a good partner—and whether they truly need the overhead and infrastructure that they get in return for giving up the lion’s share of their revenue.
So, they’re asking themselves questions like:
Did my firm deliver the support I needed to run my business during this crisis?
Has the technology platform and remote capabilities been up-to-par?
Have I been able to communicate with my clients creatively and efficiently?
Was I 100% satisfied with my firm pre-crisis?
Has my firm limited my ability to serve my clients and grow my business?
Am I getting a good value, overall, from my firm?
To be candid, the responses advisors are sharing with us have been mixed. There are some who couldn’t envision a better partner to weather this storm with. Others feel their firm has fallen short, triggering those who were frustrated before the COVID-crisis or had even an inkling of entrepreneurial DNA to contemplate what life could be like as an independent advisor.
The Groundwork for Considering Change
Ultimately, the pandemic experience has made the appeal of independence more palpable than ever—particularly in these three key areas:
1. Technology – Advisors have come to recognize the autonomy that technology affords them, yet many are questioning the efficiency of their firm’s often clunky technology platforms, which to be fair, weren’t quite ready to support an entirely virtual workplace. Whereas on the independent side, rather than being beholden to proprietary technology, advisors are leveraging the best of what the Street has to offer in terms of the newest fintech solutions. So, when COVID-19 hit, independent advisors and their staff pivoted a bit more seamlessly and with less disruption than many of their wirehouse colleagues.
2. Communication – COVID-19 has altered the way we communicate with each other. Zoom calls have taken the place of face-to-face meetings and, in many respects, further humanized our relationships as both peers and clients were invited into our homes. Webinars, social media and virtual client events have become a great way to communicate and advisors are acting and thinking more creatively. In fact, a recent WealthManagement.com article reported the following, “With in person meetings deemed unsafe and amidst increasing phone and video conferencing, advisors and their marketing firms started noticing something else: a big uptick in interest in some of the content they were generating.”
Content has become king and while wirehouse advisors are yearning to use their own voice to communicate with clients and prospects, they are finding an environment that imposes limitations on what they can and can’t say.
3. Strengthening of client relationships: The pandemic has affected everyone emotionally, physically and financially, and advisors are finding ways to add value and build trust with their clients in ways they never did before. A combination of empathy and expertise are shoring up strong relationships even further, and while concerns around portability may have topped an advisor’s list pre-crisis, particularly when considering independence, advisors are feeling more confident than ever in the strength and depth of their client relationships.
As Shirl Penney, CEO of Dynasty Financial Partners, shared in a recent podcast with Mindy Diamond, “Anytime there’s a shock to the system, it just accelerates trends that had already started.” To be sure, the independent space was gaining traction long before the pandemic hit. Yet, just as this crisis is transforming business practices, advances in technology, changes to the way we communicate, and an evolved independent landscape is bringing about a new generation of entrepreneurs—those who found themselves feeling more self-sufficient and in control of their business lives than ever before. As they look to the future, these folks are finding themselves craving the freedom and flexibility that independence offers and are likely to drive that acceleration that Shirl suggests.
Deborah Aronson is a manager and senior consultant at Diamond Consultants in Morristown, N.J., a nationally recognized boutique search and consulting firm in the financial services industry.