As 2020 recedes further in the rearview mirror, two observations become clearer. One, nobody wants to go back there, between the devastation of COVID-19 itself and the cascading impact on everyone's life. Two, the challenges of remote work and restricted human contact forced asset and wealth management firms to find new ways to work, particularly to maintain continuity in service to clients. For many firms, these adverse working conditions brought sharper clarity on what really mattered, as teams learned to adapt, pivot, communicate more clearly and better understand their expectations of each other.
In the year following mid-March 2020, SS&C Advent's Professional Services team undertook more than 800 projects to help client firms continue working seamlessly, ranging from full solution implementations to upgrades to custom engineering focused on specific issues. In the past, engagements like these entailed a lot of travel, onsite visits, and in-person meetings-all of which were out of the question during the pandemic. Like the firms they serve, our consulting professionals were also compelled to find new approaches and solutions to meet their clients' objectives and expectations. Their experience brings some valuable perspective on the challenges that asset and wealth managers confronted, and how they not only adapted, but improved their processes and procedures in ways that will have lasting implications beyond the pandemic.
Staying Connected With Clients-and With Each Other
As firms began implementing work-from-home policies, they confronted a host of challenges. Chief among them was being able to communicate and collaborate, and to gain access to the systems they shared to do their work. Many firms already had an infrastructure to support limited remote work or travel, but now these systems had to support entire firms and all their work processes. This entailed rapidly upgrading their virtual private networks (VPNs) to accommodate more simultaneous users and activity.
The next big challenge was maintaining the level of service and communication that investors were accustomed to prior to the pandemic. Firms that had not already implemented digital client portal access rushed to do so. Yet a common issue faced by many firms, particularly wealth managers, was a low level of technology adoption on the part of their end clients. While most clients were receptive to email, most investors simply had not taken advantage of the digital communication tools their wealth managers provided. Many still relied on paper statements sent through the mail.
With the first-quarter reporting cycle looming shortly after the initial shutdown, statement production and mailing became especially problematic. In the past, this was an intensive manual process involving teams of people collating statements and stuffing envelopes, with many hands touching the packages. Clearly, that could not happen under the COVID restrictions. Firms were especially wary of mailing packages to clients in the higher-risk age brackets, but they were hard-pressed to find an alternative.
Email was the obvious option, but that would mean manually attaching PDFs to individual emails for every client. Fortunately, SS&C Advent had an existing utility that enabled mass paperless distribution by email. The Professional Services team set up a dedicated resource to expedite implementation of this solution for several client firms before the mailing deadline. Those firms immediately saw this as an enormous efficiency gain and for many, it has since become their primary statement distribution mechanism.
Disaster Recovery Moves to the Forefront
While regulators require firms to have business continuity plans (BCPs) in place in the event of a disaster, few had ever faced the need to activate them, and many were uncertain whether their plans would work. While the pandemic didn't unleash the destruction of a natural disaster, firms still had to prove they could continue doing business as usual outside of the office environment. Many firms called on our Professional Services team to assist with failover testing, a process of shutting down core systems and hardware to make sure backups activate as intended. SS&C Advent worked closely with clients to analyze the results of failover testing and help evaluate their disaster readiness.
Because of the glaring needs the pandemic brought to light, our Professional Services team has instituted a specific BCP testing service, along with providing best practices that enable firms to monitor their recovery capabilities-without waiting for another disaster to strike.
Interest in Outsourcing Spikes
By most accounts, asset and wealth management firms adapted well to the work-from-home environment. However, firms that had already outsourced some or all of their technology and operations had a decided advantage over others. For firms that were on the fence about outsourcing before COVID, the shutdown was the "shove" that made the advantages of cloud delivery and outsourced data management abundantly clear.
The Professional Services team managed many migrations from in-house installations to Advent Outsourcing Services. This enabled firms to optimize the remote work environment, providing people access to the systems and data they needed while unburdening operations teams and ensuring reliable, reconciled data at the start of each trading day.
Improved Workflow Documentation
The pandemic exposed the prevalence of "key person risk" among asset and wealth managers. Before the shutdown, some firms relied heavily on one or two operational experts who knew their systems and workflows better than anyone else. If one of those people left a firm or the firm found it lacked adequate process documentation that would enable others to step in and maintain continuity, many firms were caught in difficult situations trying to cobble together contingency plans. In particular, staff members needed to better understand workflow dependencies-why they had to complete certain tasks by certain times in order for all the tasks that followed in sequence to stay on schedule.
SS&C Advent consultants conducted many workflow reviews with clients to identify opportunities to improve efficiency, automate, or otherwise eliminate manual steps. Our team then helped those firms update their documentation so they would be less reliant on an individual's knowledge. Though these efficiency exercises were triggered by the transition to work-from-home, firms will continue to benefit from them long after the pandemic subsides.
Protection Against Cyberthreats
Perhaps the dominant concern of investment firms in the shift to remote work was protecting their clients' personal and financial data, not to mention their financial assets. Hackers reportedly had a field day during the pandemic, exploiting the vulnerabilities of household wireless set-ups exchanging sensitive data. The Professional Services team worked with firms to set up virtual workstations, accessible via their VPNs so that staffers weren't running business software on their home computers or over the public internet.
As firms contemplate returning to their workplaces, many are considering hybrid models that would allow employees to work from home some or most days and minimize the number of people in the office at any given time. Security measures implemented during the pandemic will enable firms to continue with more flexible workplace policies and practices, allowing employees to enjoy a more favorable work/life balance without compromising quality or productivity.
Our Perspective: Sustaining Service Excellence in a Remote Environment As noted earlier, our Professional Services team faced the same challenges as our clients. We had somewhat of an advantage in that many of our consultants spend significant time on the road and live in areas where we do not have offices. We therefore already had an infrastructure that supported working from home.
The bigger challenge was delivering projects that historically involved extensive onsite visits and face-to-face communication, often camping out in clients' offices for days at a time and working through issues in real-time, on the fly. A crucial step in addressing this challenge was to accelerate the adoption of a cloud-based project management system that gives everyone involved in a project, consultants, and clients alike, full transparency into pending and completed activity.
At the heart of our work is the importance of fostering a strong relationship with clients and instilling confidence in them. Our team recognized how critical it was to have more frequent communication with clients once a project was underway so that everyone understood realistically how it was progressing. We learned to keep our formal meetings shorter but have many more informal check-ins with our client-side counterparts.
Our job is to help our clients succeed by making their technology work seamlessly so they can focus on servicing their clients. In the past, we believed our disciplined process, our team's tenure spanning decades, and our deep expertise in operational best practices were the keys to accomplishing this mission. While all that is still true, we learned through 2020 that our adaptability and readiness to try new idea-always part of our culture-were equally critical to our success in the face of unprecedented change and adversity. Our experience is instructive for asset and wealth managers, and really for any organization, whose success is ultimately contingent on its clients' success and satisfaction.
If you would like to learn more about SS&C Advent Professional Services or want to talk to an expert, contact us.