Get ready to go remote.

Working with clients remotely is “the wave of the future,” according to Richard Kahler, president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, S.D. “More and more clients will expect this kind of service.”

Speaking at a practice management session at NAPFA’s Fall Conference in Philadelphia on Thursday, Kahler, an industry veteran, said he now works with half of his clients remotely over phones or webcams online. Two younger advisors on the panel, Alan Moore and Christopher Jones, said they interacted remotely with more than 90% of their clients.

The panelists all said the arrangement benefits them and their clients.

“I travel about three months out of the year, and working remotely allows me a lifestyle I couldn’t otherwise have,” said Jones, president of Sparrow Wealth Management in Las Vegas.

Jones’ transition to a virtual practice began more by necessity than design – he had to leave the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania so he could be closer to his children in Las Vegas. “For some clients I had been working with for a long time, it was a difficult transition, and I come back to Pennsylvania to see many of them once a year,” he said.

But new clients have embraced a virtual relationship, Jones found. “They love it,” he said. ‘For example, I have two busy married clients and it’s easier to for all three of us to meet and be productive if they are each at their own computer.”

Moore, the founder and principal of Serenity Financial Consulting, knew he wanted a remote-based practice from the beginning. He has offices in Milwaukee and Bozeman, Montana, but said one of his biggest fears was having to be behind a desk all day.

Indeed, working with clients remotely has “allowed me to disconnect [from the office],” Moore said. New clients tend to be attracted to a mobile, virtual lifestyle themselves, he noted. “The arrangement is more efficient for everybody and gives my clients more flexibility,” he said. “I have one client who lives three miles away from me whom I’ve never seen. He’s very busy, and doesn’t want to waste time driving over to my office.”

There are caveats to working with clients remotely, of course.

For starters, all three panelists acknowledged that Web-based technology allowing both parties to see each other via webcams, particularly Skype, was notoriously unreliable. That point was underscored at the conference, as the video and audio feed beaming Kahler in from South Dakota proved to be less than optimal.

The panelists suggested forgoing free services such as Skype and Google Hangout and investing in a subscription to GoToMeeting.com or join.me, and making sure their clients have sufficient bandwidth on their Internet connection.

Nor does a virtual relationship work well with demanding high and ultrahigh net-worth clients with complex needs and requirements.

Jones said he lost a $20 million client when he left Pennsylvania. “I completely understood,” he said. “The client had a lot of money and was high touch and high demand. He wanted to see me almost every week and a remote relationship just is not going to work with certain types of clients.”

Overall, however, Jones, Moore and Kahler were convinced that specializing in working remotely gave them a competitive advantage, citing a more mobile population, baby boomers retiring and moving away and younger clients who grew up with communicating on the Internet.

Nor was age a barrier to virtual interaction, they said. “Grandparents have gotten used to communicating with their kids and grandkids on Skype,” Jones pointed out.

And Moore is even hoping that advisors with a remote practice can be listed that way on the NAPFA website.

Advisors planning to do more remote work should be as paperless as possible, the panelists suggested. Moore said his data was 100% cloud-based, and Jones said he found being able to see clients’ files on their computers using ShareFile was “insanely helpful” to a remote relationship.

Account-opening paperwork could be dealt with electronically by software such as EchoSign and DocuSign, the panelists said. Compliance for working with clients in states outside their own was a consideration, but hadn’t been particularly burdensome, they added. A number of states, they said, allowed advisors to work with up to five local clients without having to register with the state.

And clients from high-priced states such as California, Illinois and New York may be an enticing market for virtual advisors.

Jones said he recently signed on a client from California who wanted a financial advisor, but didn’t want to pay the fees being charged by local firms. “There’s no doubt this is going to make the industry more competitive,” he said.

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