Digital Is Table Stakes: Living In The Past Just Became Costly

Written by: Jason Periera and Alexandra Macqueen |

When meeting with representatives from various product and service providers, I've asked this question countless times: “When am I going to be able to do this digitally?”

The typical response? “Don’t hold your breath” – usually accompanied by either laughter or awkwardness. 

My response to this nonsense and heel-dragging, in turn, has always been the same: “What year, exactly, do you think it is?” After all, DocuSign was founded in 2003. . . a digital lifetime ago. 

Needless to say, in the wake of COVID-19, companies' apathy to digitization is no longer funny. In fact, it never was.

Over the last few years progress towards digitalization of the financial services world has been made – not as the result of incessant nagging from people like me, but largely due to fear of competition from “digital-first” experiences like the robos of the world provide. 

Today, everyone – from dealerships, to MGAs, to insurance companies – has been slowly rolling out digital solutions that enable remote work and digital signatures in place of wet ink. (Apparently, they’ve finally woken up to the fact that ink on a page is actually less secure than a digital signature that can capture various forms of metadata to provide proof of identity.)

However we are still far from done, and if you had any doubt – the last two weeks have proven my point. For technological laggards, this may be the final straw: those of us who’ve been requesting (or demanding) digital solutions for a long time are now making decisions that will not be reversed.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with countless people who have woken up to this reality, and on occasion, these conversations have frustrated me to no end. The following are a few of the more telling stories.

What Genius Came Up With This System?

  • MGA: Jason, the insurance company that we filed an application with required the following questionnaire.

  • Me: Given the current crisis situation, please ask the insurance company if they would be willing to temporarily accept a digitally signed form via DocuSign. Otherwise, given that most people don’t own a printer, it’s going to take a long time to get ANY forms signed. That and COVID-19 can live on paper for days.

  • MGA: Sorry Jason, the insurer will not accept digital signatures. Also, because you applied for this policy digitally and were not in the same room as the client, please have them sign this form that approves the use of the digital application. 

  • Me: (insert the sound of my palm hitting my face).

Yes, you read that correctly: Not only will they not accept a digital signature on a form, but they also won’t accept a digital signature on their own online application because I wasn’t in the same room as the applicant. (We met over Zoom.)

When I had to explain that to this to the client they responded with an appropriate “You’re kidding, that's the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

(Me: Agreed.)

Today I had a new life case. My first act was to confirm with my MGA which companies not only would allow for FULL digital application, but also who would allow for digital delivery. Guess who’s getting the business, and who isn’t? I suspect I’m not the only advisor in this situation.

The message is clear: If you’re an insurer who only accepts paper applications, or paper forms allowing us to accept digital applications, the next few weeks will not be kind to you. (And neither will the subsequent weeks that it takes in order for you to get your act together.)

What Do You Mean You’re At The Office?

For my second example, let me summarize a conversation I’ve had half a dozen times with various advisors since this started.

  • Me: What do you mean, you're at the office? Why aren’t you working from home?

  • Colleague: I have to come in – I have all my files here and my CRM files are on my server. What about you?

  • Me: I’m at home. I have access to everything from here. The only thing I don’t have in the cloud is my phone system, and I was going to do that in June. But for now, my current system emails me the voicemails. We have one staff member that goes in daily for mail, and scans it all to the team. Only thing I have to do is go in this weekend to sign client birthday cards.

  • Colleague: When this is all over, we need to talk. I need to get my act together.

If this sounds like you, you can start fixing your issues by reading my previous post, The Financial Advisors Survival Guide To Working From Home. 

Everyone who I have talked to in this situation has stopped thinking being a “digital dinosaur” is funny or cute. In the middle of volatile markets and a global health crisis, their ability to focus their time on calling and servicing their clients has been impeded by their lack of access to information and lack of collaboration tools with staff. 

Given that clients have grown used to a world where they can get anything delivered to their home the same day, dealing with an advisor who looks to be behind the times isn’t exactly confidence-instilling!

Resistance Was Futile; Now It’s Non-Existent

Over the last year and a half, my dealership has been rolling out a project to hundreds of independent advisor officers, and they’ve met with a lot of resistance. 

The project: Putting everyone on Office 365 and digitizing their client files on One Drive.

In fairness, I put up a fight as well. But solely because I told them there was no way I was moving over ten years of data from G-Suite to Office 365. They now support both.

Everyone else’s resistance? You name it. The cost (lower than going direct), the dealership having access to all client files (they have the right to access and audit already), and “the current system works just fine” (on an eight-year-old, possibly bootleg, and therefore malware-ridden, copy of Office). 

Various advisor offices have asked me my opinion of this coming change and I have pointed out all of the above, but still there was resistance that was in the end, likely to lose.

The other day, I spoke to someone involved in this project and BIG surprise, not only has resistance disappeared, suddenly everyone is begging to be onboarded “yesterday.”

There’s an old saying: “The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago, the second-best time is right now.” (Unless, of course, it's impossible due to COVID 19.) The reality is that many of these offices will be lucky to get this implemented and all their files scanned and uploaded by the fall.

Again, no one is laughing about being a dinosaur anymore.

The Time For Excuses Is Over

When I have pushed for the sort of changes described here I have often been met with the same arguments, over and over:

  • Advisors won’t use it: All it took was one pandemic to change that.

  • Our advisors are old and don’t like technology: Stop building processes for the advisors that will be out of the industry in several years. Instead, build them to make the business more appealing to the younger ones who will be taking over.

  • Clients are fine with the way it is: Ask my client who has to mail me back the above-mentioned form if he’s happy with that part of the experience.

  • It’s costly: The interruption to your business is probably far costlier.

  • Regulators won’t permit it: Last time I checked, the industry spends a fortune lobbying on countless issues. Make this one of them. If a startup like Wealthsimple could get regulators to move on these issues when they were just starting, imagine what industry incumbents could do if they banded together and pushed for change.

Regardless of how long this crisis lasts, or if it comes back in another season or year, the reality is something could put us in a similar situation in the future. Even if you don’t believe that, do you really want to chance being in this position again?

Take A Hard Look In The Mirror

A few years ago I was at a conference where an insurance executive held up a copy of their paper application that was developed in the late ‘90s. It was the same application they use today. He did this as a symbol of the need for change. 

I have sat through countless speeches by countless executives who have urged the advisors to adapt and change. While I agree with this, the messengers need to take a hard look in the mirror. If they don’t, some fintech will come along and start gnawing away at their market share. And I can guarantee one thing about whoever comes along and causes the disruption:

They won’t ask for a signed form to approve a digital one.

Related: The Top 10 Growth Activities for Financial Professionals