The global health crisis has profoundly impacted the way that bankers, advisors, and relationship managers can interact and engage with their clients. Early on, as news spread about the emergent SAR-Cov-2, some banks restricted international business trips or cancelled events. As the virus spread from China to Europe and finally North America, governments soon enforced lockdowns and businesses shuttered their doors.
For bankers in the City, this has put a stopper to wooing clients with fine dining at City Social or a pint at Coq d’Argent. They have had to reimagine how to impress or to seal the deal with clients virtually. For financial advisers, a lack of face-to-face client contact has been their greatest challenge during a period of extreme market volatility.
Of course, entertaining clients is not what it used to be. Many of the financial crowd will still fondly remember the excesses of the 1990s. A little over a decade later and the global financial crisis firmly dealt their end.
Today, banks and financial services firms have long introduced stricter measures – requiring employees to fly economy on business trips and limiting the amount spent on entertaining clients. In the wake of money laundering scandals and anti-bribery laws, many have set gift and hospitality thresholds to as little as £30 per head. Still, sailing through the skies or brushing through the crowds to shake hands with a client sound like customs of a strange and different land – and they hold exotic appeal.
As lockdown restrictions ease and restaurants and offices reopen, many are questioning when – or whether – face-to-face meeting are back on the agenda.
Virtual hangouts cannot replace the value of face-to-face meetings. Research from Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Cornell University, shows face-to-face interactions are 34 times more successful than emails. A survey by Forbes found similar results, eight out of ten executives prefer face-to-face meetings, citing that they build stronger, more meaningful relationships (85%) and that they can read body language and facial expressions of their guests more easily (77%). These factors translate into more successful business outcomes; 40% of prospects are converted to new customers through face-to-face meetings.
However, ongoing health and safety concerns may continue to restrict the frequency of face-to-face meetings. Many employees expect that the majority of meetings will continue to be conducted remotely, even when they return to the office. As travel and hospitality budgets are slashed in the wake of recessionary belt-tightening, many banks and financial services firms will continue to turn to technology to reduce costs.
This is a trend that has existed for several years, comments James Findlay, who heads client relationships for Selby Jennings across the UK and Europe, “The world has evolved over the last few years, so conducting face-to-face meetings over video call is pretty normal, the lockdown has just made it feel natural.”
This will be especially true for banks and financial services firms who have already invested in moving their processes online; bankers, advisors, and relationship managers who have grown accustomed to video calls with clients will be in less of a hurry to return to the way things were. For others who have depended on phone calls, they will be quicker to organize face-to-face meetings.
For the latter, face-to-face meetings pose a logistical challenge. Some banks and financial services firms won’t yet allow meetings to take place in the office, so professionals will need to be flexible about the chosen venue. While the UK government has declared restaurants and pubs can reopen following ‘Super Saturday’ on the 4th July, many clients will not yet be ready to go out for lunch and meeting in a park, for example, will be too informal.
Perhaps the coffee shop will be the new arena where business is made. After all, as economies reopen, clients are going to be very busy – chatting over a coffee is enough time to show be attentive without being distracting.
“Over the last five-to-six years, the coffee shop has been a really common place to meet clients,” comments James Findlay. “At least in recruitment, it is only when a client relationship deepens that we would transition to beers or a meal.”
This raises another question – what is the new etiquette for client meetings? That is, is it polite to ask for a face-to-face meeting during this climate or an imposition?
Of course, a huge amount is still unknown.
While the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andrew Haldane, has forecasted a V-shaped recovery for the UK’s economy, the IMF has warned that this is a “crisis like no other, an uncertain recovery.” Haldane has also stated that as things stand, it is unclear which of two scenarios will emerge: one of lower unemployment and higher spending, or higher unemployment and lower spending.
While Haldane’s assessment follows early indicators such as real-time data on payments and business surveys, it is important to remember that business strategies and sales cycles are unlikely to return to where they were pre-lockdown.
Showing consideration of a client’s individual needs will be key to stand out as a trusted adviser, rather than someone solely concerned with hitting their targets. While disruption to our everyday work lives is likely to continue, the opportunity for face-to-face meetings should be seized wherever possible.
Listening to a client’s challenges in person will be a more memorable experience than a Zoom call - and one that will keep vital relationships steadfast throughout the volatility that waits ahead.
“Until the pandemic is over, we do not want to put pressure on our clients to meet face-to-face if they’re not comfortable. But, of course, doing so has been part of our jobs for a while – it’s a great way to connect with people,” says James Findlay. “Good video conferencing software and hardware can help, but it can’t substitute – we’re all feeling something of a loss right now. So, when it’s possible it’s something we want to do. When our clients are ready, we’ll be ready.”
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Head of Client Services & Business Development, UK & EMEA