Some firms will embrace remote working more permanently while others plan to reframe how they interact with customers as they look to restrictions lifting on 19th July, and based on the experience of doing business since March 2020.
The activity of lender business development managers (BDMs) and whether they will return to a schedule of regular, in-person office visits like before the virus is among several big potential changes being looked at.
Mark Harris, chief executive, SPF Private Clients, is among those with a broking philosophy rooted in a more wholesale return to the office.
“Things are beginning to feel a little bit more normal, and we’ve even had BDMs back in the office – cautiously. It is a relationship business and it feels natural to have that in-person interaction with partners and colleagues,” he said.
Team camaraderie and the ability to coach new starters were seen as key human touch elements that have been difficult to replicate on video calling platforms like Zoom or Teams.
Start Financial Services, a firm of 25 including 15 brokers covering the Kent region, which is part of Acorn Group, having 39 estate agency offices, has returned to a newly-built office which was in construction when the pandemic started.
Grant Nichols, financial services director at Start FS, said: “I was keen to get back in the office for the sales environment and for coaching and development.” After a degree of initial resistance – based on staff having become accustomed to working for home – “it has really helped to maintain morale,” he said.
However, face-to-face meetings with clients had now “totally disappeared,” with consultations done about 60 per cent on videocall and 40 per cent on the ‘phone.
There was no plan to return advisers to working in the agency branches, which had previously been the case. “I don’t see that going back, because there doesn’t seem to be demand, it’s more likely to be a booth in a branch for a videocall,” Nichols said.
Remote adviser roles
Other firms have taken the decision to embrace working from home (WfH) and hybrid arrangements on a permanent basis.
L&C Mortgages has begun recruiting for remote advisers who will not be based out of either its Bath or Newcastle offices.
“It’s a new departure for us. We know now that it can work and it means we are not tied to regional recruitment, and applicants don’t have to relocate,” said David Hollingworth, associate director, communications, at L&C Mortgages.
There will be a gradual return for existing employees. “We will consult with colleagues and then see how it fits into business. Generally, people want a hybrid of WfH and office,” he said.
The firm’s new approach to BDMs and account managers would be based on best use of advisers’ time. This suggested a blended approach, with some online and some in-person meetings.
“How to integrate lender interactions, particularly for newer advisers, at the moment is harder to work out. If there are fewer advisers in the office, will it become more hybrid?
“The critical bit is ensuring availability for advisers who want to talk through a case,” Hollingworth said.
Similarly, digital broker Trussle has taken lessons learned during the pandemic and is applying them to reorganising how it manages interactions with customers.
“We want to build out our customer journey with adaptations, so that at the end of the fact find, they can choose how and when they want input from a broker,” said Miles Robinson, head of mortgages at Trussle.
The firm has identified that there is a critical, decision-making moment in the customer’s process when they want input from an adviser. Rather than putting all enquiries into a pot and then allocating them to advisers, it is developing a ‘speak now’ option, which may involve an instant call-back, live chat, or the option to book an appointment later.
“That gives the broker the chance to get the recommendation together, and then to go through the 30 to 40 minutes conversation,” Robinson said.
“Last summer was a crazy surge of demand. No one was ready for that. It has escalated our learning and caused us to take a step back and reflect. If we know how customers want to be contacted, it’s easier to manage changes in demand levels,” he added.
Trussle will also take advantage of remote working to recruit from “a more diverse, national talent pool,” including having plans to hire in Scotland.
However, there remains a lot of uncertainty ahead. “As the year unfolds, will the rules still be lifted by August, or October? No one really knows,” said Shaun Almond, managing director, HL Partnership (HLP).
The largest independently-owned network in the UK, with 411 appointed representatives (ARs) and 854 advisors, HLP hosted its first post-pandemic, in-person networking event this week.
“Lots of firms have started to get more people back, and some do want to return. Brokers are mostly a gregarious bunch who talk for a living, and it’s not the same wearing a mask,” Almond said.
“But there’s no right or wrong. As things open up, we will get back to some face-to-face, but perhaps not as much as before,” he added.