By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO, March 8 Most of Sophia Bera's financial
planning clients have never met her in person, and they don't
seem to care.
Bera, a newly minted financial adviser in Minneapolis,
operates almost completely online. The majority of her clients
are twentysomething millennials, and most of them are outside
"I work with clients in their 20s and 30s around the
country," says the fee-only planner who charges a monthly
retainer for her services. "We use Skype meetings and email
follow-ups, and it works out really well."
Bera has staked a claim to online business. Although she
started her practice less than a year ago, she already writes a
regular blog, maintains a robust website and participates in
"tweet chats" on Twitter about topics such as building financial
security and how couples handle money. She says she never turns
down an opportunity to give herself more online media exposure.
Bera represents an extreme example of the trend toward
remote service in the wealth management industry. It has taken
hold with clients who are both more tech-savvy and more
time-constrained. Meanwhile, user-friendly technologies such as
affordable cloud-based video platforms allow virtual meetings to
achieve a personal feel.
"I actually think it's much more convenient," says Chris
Hoffman, a 28-year-old Colorado Springs, Colorado, client of
Bera's who has never met her in person. Instead he and his wife,
Britta, 30, meet with her via Skype as their work and home
"We can usually find a time pretty easily," says Hoffman,
adding: "We worked with a local planner here for a couple of
years. It was just a challenge to get over to his office."
Many advisers these days attract clients through virtual
means and then servicing them remotely with online tools such as
GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts or Skype, all platforms that enable
videoconferencing over desktop computers or handheld devices.
Others are transitioning existing clients to these technologies,
becoming more efficient in the process while also saving their
charges the hassle of traveling to their offices.
Michael Kitces, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant to other
advisers, says serving clients virtually can work well when
advisers are careful to maintain standards of professional
protocol for appearance and presentation.
Just as they would in person, they must still pay attention
to visual details such as their dress and the overall appearance
of their office, he says. In addition, they must be prepared to
clue into clients' non-verbal cues, such as body language.
"People need to be able to see you," says Kitces, who is
also a partner and adviser in Pinnacle Advisory Group. "Do you
look like someone who is going to be trustworthy that I want to
Kitces has several clients whom he has never met in person,
though they have seen him via videoconferencing.
To be sure, some clients gain comfort with the virtual
meeting process only after they've had a face-to-face meeting or
two with their adviser.
Robert O'Dell, an adviser with offices in Wheaton, Illinois,
and Naples, Florida, got many of his longstanding baby boomer
clients to begin working with him virtually after they retired
to warmer climes like Florida. Now about 40 percent of O'Dell's
meetings take place virtually, helped by so-called mapping
software, which offers both video chat and the ability for two
or more parties to review financial planning documents online
during the conversation.
"We decided from Day One that we'd make technology work for
us," says O'Dell. "It's a great way to do problem solving, note
taking, presentations. We need no paper, we take no paper
For Dale Walters, a Phoenix-based adviser whose firm has
about $340 million under management, working virtually has
always been a necessity. He specializes in the needs of
high-net-worth executives who live on their non-native side of
the Canadian-American border for work. They include both
Americans and Canadians, half of whom he has never met in
Virtual meetings are typically more efficient and
structured, he says.
It's not just advisers and clients who are working this way.
Some adviser teams are now working virtually as well. That's the
case with Marcio Silveira, an Arlington, Virginia-based
financial planner whose business partner now lives in New
He points out that the distance can be an advantage, noting
"My afternoon is her morning. We keep the work flowing this