What RIAs need to do when coronavirus keeps changing the rules

With major changes and challenges occurring daily, the past two weeks have felt like months for most of us. At Allworth Financial, which has 209 associates and locations in 17 cities across the country, we’ve been adapting and pivoting on the fly. I’m sure you have, as well.

I’m going to outline some of the steps we’ve taken in the hope that it helps other RIAs adapt and meet the needs of their staffs and clients during this incredibly difficult time.

On Friday, March 6, when the talk of possible worst-case coronavirus scenarios first began to emerge, we reviewed our continuity plan. (All RIAs are required to have one.) While it contained some key elements, it was clear it wasn’t detailed enough to prepare us for what might unfold in the days ahead.

By the following Tuesday, March 10, we’d assembled and held the first meeting of our firm’s new coronavirus task force. By then, primary and secondary schools and universities had begun to close.

It was during this initial meeting that our chief technology officer asked what we would do if we were in total lockdown. Though this was a mere two weeks ago, looking back, I remember thinking that he might be joking. At that point, I had never considered the entire country might be asked to undertake such drastic measures. Yet even though most of us felt that a total lockdown was unlikely, we decided then and there to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

The task force distilled our goals down to a handful of crucial endeavors.

First, to keep our workforce safe. Above all, we wanted to do everything in our power to ensure that every one of our team members was not only as safe as we could make them, but also felt safe.

Second, every team member needed to be outfitted so they could work from home. This, of course, included full integration with our portfolio systems, customer relationship management system, accounting system, phone system, video conferencing and more. Our advisers already had access to much of our system remotely, but most of our service members did not.

Third, in spite of the difficulties everyone was facing (at work, yes, but also in their private lives), we of course had to continue to protect client data and privacy. We realized we couldn’t let expediency cause us to be negligent, especiallyin this area.

While most of our employees had laptops, 36 did not. The first thing the task force needed to do was to conduct an inventory of our hardware, laptops and headsets. We immediately began to repurpose older, unused laptops and then ordered 15 more, along with 180 headsets. When it became obvious that important items such as long ethernet phone cables were backlogged online, we found them readily available at local supply stores. 

Concurrently, we were focusing on software. All laptops needed to have an internet browser, of course, but they also needed to be set up to work as a “soft phone” (a “soft phone” system enables the computer to function like a ground line) so our clients could have the same phone routing system they’re accustomed to. (During business hours, we don’t allow clients to be placed into voicemail.)

In addition, all laptops had to have the video communications software Zoom installed and ready to go. We use videoconferencing via Zoom for everything from business-to-business communications to client appointments to department, such as, say, marketing, appointments between locations, and now, team members’ homes. 

Next, we created a plan to get everyone trained in all pertinent applications, processes and software by the following Friday.

On Sunday evening, March 15, we held a remote meeting with the task force and made two key decisions. First, we announced to clients and potential clients that, for the time being, we were moving all advisory appointments to either phone or Zoom.

Second, all employees who had the ability to work remotely would immediately be asked to do so.

On Monday, March 16, six Bay Area counties issued a “shelter-in-place” order. This order exempted certain industries, including our own, but we soon realized that some of our office parks were entirely shutting down. By that evening, two of our physical offices were temporarily closed.

The following morning, we notified our entire organization that we needed to prepare to become a 100% virtual company.

On Tuesday, March 17, Sacramento County (where we are headquartered), issued its own guidance on travel and gatherings. (As I’m writing this, that guidance has now been upgraded to the more restrictive “shelter in place.”)

While the above was happening operationally, we made a major pivot with our education and marketing. We put together a client communication team and, in one week, produced and delivered videos, podcasts, written market updates and other communication pieces to our clients.

Simultaneously, our investment department has been digging deep into our portfolios to see what new investment risks might be lurking that were unforeseen only a few weeks ago. (Most of our portfolios are in passive strategies, but we utilize some managers in the fixed-income space.) Even though we had moved to a defensive position in fixed income several months ago, we wanted to be sure.

Lastly, we instructed the post office and other carriers to forward all mail and deliveries to our Sacramento headquarters.

After a whirlwind two weeks, it’s now the week of March 23, and all our employees, and most of the country, have been ordered to shelter in place ⁠— at home. Obviously, to call this a “fluid situation” is an understatement. But our firm is 100% operational. We are holding meetings via videoconferencing, and we continue to be in consistent contact with our clients.

Admittedly, it’s a little hard to believe all that has transpired in the past two weeks.

While I can’t predict what the coming days and months will bring, I can certainly read the various reports out there and it doesn’t look good. Aside from what’s happening in the markets, and to the economy, we may be in for several weeks, or more, of remote work, adapting to an entirely new sense of normal along the way.

Make no mistake, it’s during times like these that your clients need you more than ever.

After 12 years of a bull market, some experts were scoffing at the notion of asset allocation and the value that personal financial advisers provide. But looking ahead, I find it likely that the demand for our services will only increase in the future.

How you respond to, and communicate with, clients and staff right now will define your practice going forward. Above all else, get ready for a lot of “new normal” in the coming weeks.

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Scott Hanson is co-founder of  formerly Hanson McClain Advisors, a fee-based RIA with $8 billion in AUM.

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