Evaluating your new financial advisor via Zoom

What role do snap judgements make when interaction and assessment take place in a Zoom meeting?

At Rosebank Wealth Group we are fortunate in that most of our new clients are referred via word of mouth. Most of our appointments are in Johannesburg, but we travel to accommodate clients in Cape Town, George, Durban and occasionally other towns.

When new clients come to our Johannesburg office, they are greeted in the reception area before being ushered into the adjacent board room. They are offered refreshments. A certain section of our reception area offers visitors a glimpse of our administration area; a space which provides seating for 14 people and which gives visitors a sense of our capacity.  

Members of our team who have been invited to attend the introductory meeting are summoned from their desks and duly present themselves in the boardroom. A flurry of introductions ensues, with shaking of hands and greetings.

The greetings, refreshment ordering process and general introductions provide our potential clients with an opportunity to make snap judgments and evaluate what they see and hear. Homo Sapiens have had thousands of years to perfect the art of both conscious and sub-conscious analysis and assessment. Eye contact (or the lack of it), wardrobe choices, the speed, firmness, form of handshakes, as well as the tone and content of small talk all provide an arsenal of data to all parties round the table.

Our new visitors also have the opportunity to assess the (relatively low-key) RWG taste in interior decoration and the building itself, (well-located with good parking, fit-for-purpose), but otherwise fairly non-descript relative to many corporate palaces. Our choices will obviously meet with approval in some, and dissonance or discomfort in others.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ examined the role of snap judgments.  He wrote that the human brain relies on two strategies to make decisions. The first is a rational, conscious process that weighs the pros and cons of a decision. The second is intuitive and quick as lightning. Gladwell wrote that these snap decisions are frequently superior to those made after a thorough analysis.

If Gladwell is correct, most clients decide even before the meeting starts whether or not they are comfortable in our space and whether to trust our advice or not.

During ‘hard’ lockdown, we had three digital interviews with prospective clients, all of whom decided to become our clients. When we know them better, we will ask them what swayed them. It certainly caused us to wonder how snap judgements are expressed or play out on Zoom meetings.

Assessing people via Zoom or Microsoft Teams (typically with cameras that point to the roof, bad lighting and unreliable data) is not only a problem for investors choosing a new financial advisor. A time-honoured way to shortlist finalists for new executive appointments, graduate appointments, scholarship winners, city councillors or any future leaders where soft skills are required is to take short-listed candidates on a ‘problem solving’ weekend.

All the shortlisted candidates know in advance that every aspect of their formal and informal social interaction will contribute to the final decision of the selectors.

In the COVID-19 environment, when Zoom has replaced the weekend away, do selectors have enough information to make a decision? Would they come to the same conclusion? Might a Zoom-based interview tip the odds in favour for some, and negatively affect others?

Everybody knows that manipulating snap decisions is an art which has been honed over thousands of years. Not so long ago, both elocution lessons and familiarity with the extensive range of cutlery associated with fine dining were considered essential building blocks of social mobility. Business schools have courses which cover the subliminal messages that are conveyed with different types of hand shake (firm, the ‘to-be shmoozed’ person’s hand should be on the top, horizontal to the ground). Students are also coached on what to wear and how to make small talk.

Of course, you can also learn some tips on how to make a good impression on Zoom. If you google ‘How to make a good first impression on Zoom’ many sites pop up. Click here, (5 tips to improve your first impression over video conferencing),  here (Four Tips to Make a Good Impression on a Zoom Video Conference Call) and here (10 Ways to Make a Great First Impression) for some examples. During COVID-19, when Zoom calls were still a novelty it seemed as though all backdrops were book shelves. It wasn’t long before ‘curating’ the selection of books became a recommendation for making a good impression.

Clearly, in the financial advice sector, assessment via Zoom is not only a potential hazard for our clients. Pre-COVID-19, one of Rosebank Wealth Group’s competitive advantages was that members of our team travelled to the US, Europe and the East fairly regularly to evaluate investment opportunities. Asset managers were interrogated ‘face to face’, factories and property developments visited. This ‘tyre-kicking’ process served to ensure that we developed relationships with the asset managers and built an arsenal of both qualitative and non-qualitative information about prospective investments on behalf of our clients.

We believe that this first-hand knowledge of our narrowed down choice of investments has given us an edge over the years. Knowing more about an investment than the data that appears on marketing literature has saved us from a few scrapes as well as deepened our knowledge of the opportunities and constraints faced by our managers.

What comes next? As of January 2021, the second COVID-19 wave of infection is upon us, and it is likely we will have to endure a ‘co-COVID-19’ environment for at least another six months. Physical meetings are likely to be blended with Zooming and Microsoft teams for convenience as well as safety concerns.

We have found that during COVID-19, some clients have requested short 15-30 minute ‘check-in’ chats, and of course such meetings are more feasible on Zoom. COVID-19 has also provided an incentive for product providers to become more innovative, to introduce digital administration and functionality.

But how will this play out in the longer term? Will financial services and financial advisory services become cheaper as physical attendance at conferences at meetings will no longer be assumed? Or will any possible price saving due to less travel be re-allocated with higher expenditure on cyber security because more employees will continue to work from home?

Will there be a retreat to established brands because of a greater suspicion of untested ‘Zoom interviewed only’ newcomers? Or will the established brands not keep up with the necessary investment in cyber security, working from home and other societal shifts? 

Will those companies (like ours) that have always prided themselves on maintaining a personal touch become relatively less common and therefore more sought after? Or conversely will the ‘robo-advisor’ model be forced to become even cheaper, possibly making it unviable?

At Rosebank Wealth Group our clients are our lifeblood. We will continue to manage client needs on a case-by-case basis. So far, the changes introduced by COVID-19 have been positive for us. Zoom calls have added another element to our offering for those who prefer to interact digitally and might even expand our client base. For those who prefer face to face meetings, that’s fine with us. Ultimately, we will let our clients choose about how they would like to engage with us.

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