Texas Tech University

Teletherapy Offers Best Practices for Financial Planners Upended by COVID-19

Glenys Young

June 14, 2021

Virtual Meeting

This collaborative, interdisciplinary research takes the lessons learned in one field and adapts them for success in another.

Over the last decades, personal finances have become an increasingly virtual matter. With the proliferation of mobile banking, smartphone apps and debit cards, fewer and fewer monetary transactions actually happen face-to-face. And yet, last year, when COVID-19 shuttered businesses and sent most of the world online, the financial planning industry found itself in just as much chaos as most other industries.

Some firms, particularly large firms and those that specialize in younger clients, were already well established virtually. Many others were not. Upon finding themselves forced into online-only communication, sometimes with older clients who prefer to operate face-to-face, they struggled. It was not merely a question of how to schedule and participate in virtual meetings, of course. There also were questions such as whether a virtual platform allowed planners and clients to enjoy the same quality of interaction, whether they understood one another and whether those interactions actually led to the client's desired outcomes.

From an academic standpoint, it was practically uncharted territory – almost no research had been done on virtual client meetings in personal financial planning. However, virtual client meetings had been studied in other areas, particularly in therapy and counseling.

“The COVID-19 environment pushed the virtual platform to the forefront as the primary way to connect with clients – along with the recognition that we really know very little about how the professional-client interaction functions and affects client outcomes when the relationship is primarily experienced through this modality,” said Sarah Asebedo, a certified financial planner (CFP®) and assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Personal Financial Planning. “This lack of research, prominent shift in modality and the need for expert input motivated a collaborative research project.”

So, she began reaching out to colleagues in the College of Human Sciences. The resulting collaborative, interdisciplinary research has the potential to take the lessons learned in one field and adapt them for success in another. Their article “Facilitating Virtual Client Meetings for Money Conversations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Skills and Strategies for Financial Planners,” was published recently in the Journal of Financial Planning. Among its 10 co-authors are six from Texas Tech:

  • Asebedo, director of the Life-Centered Financial Planning graduate certificate at Texas Tech, a past president of the Financial Therapy Association and editor of the Journal of Financial Therapy;
  • Dorothy B. Durband, an accredited financial counselor (AFC®), a professor of personal financial planning and associate dean for academics and faculty in the College of Human Sciences;
  • Stephen Fife, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), associate professor and director of the Couple, Marriage, and Family Therapy program and co-developer of the Therapeutic Pyramid, an award-winning, innovative model of psychotherapy;
  • Blake T. Gray, CFP®️, a doctoral student and research assistant in personal financial planning who previously spent eight years serving Vanguard clients virtually;
  • Jaclyn Cravens Pickens, LMFT, an associate professor in the Couple, Marriage, and Family Therapy program who specializes in the influence of technology on relationships and the practice of relational teletherapy; and
  • Gerald “Jerry” Sheridan, a Texas Tech Life-Centered Financial Planning certificate graduate who now focuses on retirement preparation, planning and lifestyle continuation as a registered investment advisor.

“Financial planners have great relationships with clients and know a lot about their health, mentality, family, etc.,” Gray said. “Suddenly, both planners and clients were disconnected from each other and both parties from their typical social networks. Because of this, there was a general concern about our clients. We wanted to help both the client and the planner overcome obstacles to effective virtual communication in a way that preserves the human relationship. That we did not have to go outside of Texas Tech to access so many experts is quite telling of the research capacity and reputation of the university."

“It is also telling of the collaborative nature of the College of Human Sciences faculty,” Asebedo added. “During a busy and disruptive time, we came together to produce a timely and important paper. Even more broadly, the authors primarily came from prominent human sciences financial planning programs at Texas Tech, the University of Georgia and Kansas State University. This indicates that human sciences financial planning programs are well positioned with research and practice experts in personal finance, therapy, psychology and counseling to address important issues related to client relationships and behaviors within the financial domain.”

The work resulted in a set of best practices for financial planners to use in virtual meetings to address clients' needs without sacrificing the engagement of a face-to-face interaction.

“Sometimes we see technology as suboptimal to face-to-face, but there is evidence that suggests the virtual modality – when done well and embraced by the professional – can play a vital role in strengthening client relationships and in giving clients more flexibility and choice about how and where they meet with their professional advisor,” Asebedo said. “Seeing virtual interaction in this manner, as opposed to a secondary option when face-to-face is not possible, is a subtle yet impactful perspective shift.”

Much research remains to be done on the role of virtual meetings in financial planning, but Asebedo believes this study could serve as a launching point.

“We hope this paper ignites more research into virtual services,” Asebedo said, “and helps financial professionals have confidence in embracing it as a viable modality to connect with clients on a more regular basis.”