Zoom Is Just Fine, Northwestern Mutual Customers Say

CEO John Schlifske says the company is sticking with all-virtual relationships at clients’ request.
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Northwestern Mutual executives are happy to be welcoming financial advisors and other employees back to the company’s three campuses with the expectation that pretty much everyone will be in the office by fall as if it were 2019 all over again. CEO John Schlifske believes the culture and the competitive edge of the financial-services giant depend on physical proximity, even in the digital era.

On the other hand, pandemic performance has dictated entirely the opposite decision on how NM advisors will handle relationships with their clients going forward: Customers have demonstrated a strong preference to continue to meet only virtually with company representatives after Covid, so Schlifske and his IT team are reimagining that part of NM’s business model for the long term.

“There’s something about it that clients like better,” Schlifske, whose Milwaukee-based company ranks No. 90 in the Fortune 500, told StrategicCIO360. Virtual appointments “are at a set time. They don’t have to make coffee for [an advisor], or greet them, or meet them somewhere. They don’t have to leave their home or their office.”

This wasn’t a change that NM representatives necessarily welcomed, Schlifske said. The shutdowns from the pandemic “forced our salespeople to do it. I’m 62 years old, and I can imagine someone from my era, who’s always engaged with clients face to face, pooh-poohing the notion of having just a digital relationship with clients. But the situation forced them to adjust to that and learn, and most salespeople now love it.

“It accelerated our digital transformation. From a change-management perspective, we had to do it and get used to it and build that muscle and get good at it. And once we did it, it wasn’t too bad.”

In the process, Schlifske said, Northwestern Mutual has been gaining some benefits as an organization. For one thing, the number of meeting cancellations by clients has plummeted in the all-virtual realm. “One of the crosses our reps hate to bear is meetings not held,” Schlifske said.

Also, the paradigm shift to an all-virtual playing field for client relationships has “opened up the marketplace” for NM advisors and salespeople physically located in one place to garner business across the country rather than only locally. “Our reps now talk about having a national practice, with some clients they get referred to who don’t live in the city where they operate,” Schlifske said. “They can deal with people across the country.” NM doesn’t have a geographic-franchise mentality that would prohibit its agents from probing the entire nation for business, he said.

At the same time, Schlifske said, the digitization of everything has underscored—rather than undermined—the importance for customers of having a personal, flesh-and-bones adviser like those at NM.

“I wouldn’t have bet on this before the pandemic, but it’s proven out that in digital relationships, people still want a trusted financial adviser,” he said. “The notion that individuals are going to do all this [investment] stuff themselves using just digital tools and not have an advisor—it’s been just the opposite. People have reached out to us.

“There’s human nature at work. People want someone to talk things through with them, and they don’t want to make big financial decisions without human input. They want expert advice; they want someone to talk them out of doing dumb things. So the beauty of the pandemic ended up being what I always believed: The best relationships are a mix of digital and human.”

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