Finance in Focus - December 2020
Welcome to our Finance in Focus series, where members of our global team take on the issues that matter to clients in the global financial services industry. Here, Nick Bishop, Regional Managing Director for our Caribbean Region and head of our long-standing BVI office, makes the case for face-to-face contact.
Regional Managing Director, BVI
T: +1 284 494 2434
Why financial services need face-to-face contact
In pre-pandemic times, we thought nothing of flying halfway across the world to meet a new client. My practice has always been to spend two weeks in each part of the world where we have clients every year. I like to thank them for being our clients, and ensure that they feel confident that they know who’s looking after their business on this small island.
Meeting face-to-face was key in order to build those personal relationships that are so important, particularly when you’re a smaller, more specialised firm rather than a mass-market provider. Of course, we also communicated using phone and email – but those communications were stronger and more effective because we had met our clients first.
Since the pandemic hit, of course, video calls have become the norm across all sectors, not just financial services. Recent research from the global financial services firm Aegon has found that around 67 per cent of financial advisers now use video calling when talking to clients – and around three-quarters of them intend to carry on using it once social distancing ends.
But it’s interesting to note that in that same survey, around 27 per cent of clients said they would still prefer to get that professional contact face-to-face. That chimes with my experience, too. There are still many people who appreciate having a private audience with you, in their office, to talk things through. So, while video calling has enabled us to keep these relationships going in these very challenging times, our clients need us now more than ever. I hope it doesn’t prove to be a permanent change.
Video pros and cons
Of course, video calling certainly has a lot of advantages. It’s a lot cheaper and quicker than getting on a plane to talk to someone. It’s easy to use, the big platforms are available globally, and, if you use the right platform, it’s safe and secure. And it’s certainly possible to continue to build a relationship with regular video or phone calls – but again, that’s something which is most effective if the relationship is already established.
But there’s some interesting research coming out around how we communicate via video calls as opposed to in person. And that shows us that video calls can’t replace face-to-face interaction altogether. On video calls, we tend to be less engaged. There are all sorts of opportunities to be distracted. The caller can’t see us answering emails on our phone while they talk, for example.
A sense of someone
That’s a problem when we’re talking about something that the client isn’t necessarily interested in, but it’s vital for them to know about. It’s far easier to gauge whether someone is taking in what you’re saying if you’re talking to them in the same room – and it’s far more difficult for them to give in to distraction.
You get a sense of someone face-to-face that you can’t get when they’re just on a screen. Recently, for example, I interviewed some candidates for a position via video call. And I noticed that one seemed to be reading from a script. I was watching the way their eyes kept diverting downwards. They had clearly mapped out everything which they thought would be good to talk about during the interview, and were simply reading it from their notes. It’s not possible to get away with that if you’re sitting across a table from your interviewer.
It’s also far harder to tell how the interaction is going at the most basic level. We rely on non-verbal cues far more than we think. In fact, most experts say that non-verbal communication is between 70 and 90 per cent of all communication. When we lose that, we have to rely solely on words. Let’s go back to interviews: my first set of questions always relates to behaviours, and if the person is right for our company. Even when an interviewee doesn’t say anything, I’m already making up my mind about them, based on all those things video can’t tell you: are their shoes clean, for example?
And that brings us to another issue. Video calls, it appears, are also more tiring and stressful than face-to-face interactions. Writing in The Conversation, Professors Libby Sander and Oliver Bauman point out that during video calls: “People feel like they have to make more emotional effort to appear interested, and in the absence of many non-verbal cues, the intense focus on words and sustained eye contact is exhausting.”
Even a traditional phone call takes up less energy than a video call, Jeffery Hall, professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and the author of Relating Through Technology told Psychology Today. “Zoom is exhausting and lonely because you have to be so much more attentive and so much more aware of what’s going on than you do on phone calls,” he said. This chimes with my personal experience when the BVI was under curfew and we were all unable to leave our houses for four weeks. We all just wanted to go to the office and speak to our colleagues in person over a cup of tea.
The world has changed, and, of course, we’re changing with it. It’s up to us as professionals to embrace this new world of communication, and work with our clients to find which methods work best for them. If that means learning a new set of skills to help clients stay engaged and focused during video calls, I’m all for it.
But I’m sure I’m not alone in believing that digital interaction simply can’t replace meeting face-to-face. That may be a traditional view but that’s how I’ve always done things: sitting down with clients and really getting to know them. In October 2019, I did a presentation in HK on BVI Economic Substance. More than a hundred people attended. At the end of our presentation, we had over an hour of non-stop questions raised from the floor, both about the area we spoke about and general life in the BVI. This would never have happened on a webinar.
It’s a bit like the difference between online news and a newspaper. When I’m in the UK, there’s nothing I like more than picking up a paper copy of the Financial Times on a Sunday, and taking my time to read it. But living in the BVI, where it’s not available as a paper copy, I’ll just dip in and out of it online.
That’s fine: I get what I need from it. But it’s not the same. It’s a different, quicker, more shallow interaction. And when it comes to giving the best service possible to clients, in order to build trust on both sides, we need depth. We need that handshake, that smile, that nod – those things that connect us on a human level. Here’s hoping we can return to them soon.