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YOUR PRACTICE-The rise and rise of the virtual financial adviser

By Deborah L. Cohen

CHICAGO, March 8 (Reuters) - Most of Sophia Bera's financial planning clients have never met her in person, and they don't seem to care.

Bera, a newly minted financial adviser in Minneapolis, operates almost completely online. The majority of her clients are twentysomething millennials, and most of them are outside Minnesota.

"I work with clients in their 20s and 30s around the country," says the fee-only planner who charges a monthly retainer for her services. "We use Skype meetings and email follow-ups, and it works out really well."

Bera has staked a claim to online business. Although she started her practice less than a year ago, she already writes a regular blog, maintains a robust website and participates in "tweet chats" on Twitter about topics such as building financial security and how couples handle money. She says she never turns down an opportunity to give herself more online media exposure.

Bera represents an extreme example of the trend toward remote service in the wealth management industry. It has taken hold with clients who are both more tech-savvy and more time-constrained. Meanwhile, user-friendly technologies such as affordable cloud-based video platforms allow virtual meetings to achieve a personal feel.

"I actually think it's much more convenient," says Chris Hoffman, a 28-year-old Colorado Springs, Colorado, client of Bera's who has never met her in person. Instead he and his wife, Britta, 30, meet with her via Skype as their work and home schedules dictate.

"We can usually find a time pretty easily," says Hoffman, adding: "We worked with a local planner here for a couple of years. It was just a challenge to get over to his office."

Many advisers these days attract clients through virtual means and then servicing them remotely with online tools such as GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts or Skype, all platforms that enable videoconferencing over desktop computers or handheld devices. Others are transitioning existing clients to these technologies, becoming more efficient in the process while also saving their charges the hassle of traveling to their offices.

Michael Kitces, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant to other advisers, says serving clients virtually can work well when advisers are careful to maintain standards of professional protocol for appearance and presentation.

Just as they would in person, they must still pay attention to visual details such as their dress and the overall appearance of their office, he says. In addition, they must be prepared to clue into clients' non-verbal cues, such as body language.

"People need to be able to see you," says Kitces, who is also a partner and adviser in Pinnacle Advisory Group. "Do you look like someone who is going to be trustworthy that I want to work with?"

Kitces has several clients whom he has never met in person, though they have seen him via videoconferencing.

To be sure, some clients gain comfort with the virtual meeting process only after they've had a face-to-face meeting or two with their adviser.

Robert O'Dell, an adviser with offices in Wheaton, Illinois, and Naples, Florida, got many of his longstanding baby boomer clients to begin working with him virtually after they retired to warmer climes like Florida. Now about 40 percent of O'Dell's meetings take place virtually, helped by so-called mapping software, which offers both video chat and the ability for two or more parties to review financial planning documents online during the conversation.

"We decided from Day One that we'd make technology work for us," says O'Dell. "It's a great way to do problem solving, note taking, presentations. We need no paper, we take no paper notes."

For Dale Walters, a Phoenix-based adviser whose firm has about $340 million under management, working virtually has always been a necessity. He specializes in the needs of high-net-worth executives who live on their non-native side of the Canadian-American border for work. They include both Americans and Canadians, half of whom he has never met in person.

Virtual meetings are typically more efficient and structured, he says.

It's not just advisers and clients who are working this way. Some adviser teams are now working virtually as well. That's the case with Marcio Silveira, an Arlington, Virginia-based financial planner whose business partner now lives in New Zealand.

He points out that the distance can be an advantage, noting "My afternoon is her morning. We keep the work flowing this way."