Staying connected

Pandemic forces banks to find different ways to do business

Posted on Nov 29, 2020 :: Banking
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

After closing its lobbies last March when Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order went into effect, Associated Bank began preparing for its safe reopening over the summer by adding plexiglass barriers and asking customers to wear masks and practice social distancing. But as COVID-19 cases began to increase dramatically, the Green Bay-based bank decided this fall to close all of its lobbies once again.

That’s been par for the course in 2020 as financial institutions try to stay nimble and still provide customers with quality customer service. To meet that goal, banks promoted their online and mobile banking options and found different ways to service their personal and business banking customers.

Associated Bank President and CEO Phil Flynn says customers needed to adapt to new ways of banking, whether it was signing up for mobile banking, learning how to do digital deposits or making transfers online, whether between an individual customer’s multiple accounts or between two customers.

“Our customers adapted well to the changes,” Flynn says. “We survey our customers daily to measure satisfaction with our services, and the satisfaction levels are at the highest we’ve ever seen.”

Besides using digital banking options, Investors Community Bank customers also began to feel more comfortable with making payments to other people through Zelle and Venmo, says Matt Lemke, senior vice president for the Manitowoc-based bank.

“Debit card usage also increased as some people have been reluctant to exchange cash,” he says. “We have also seen an increase in tools like DocuSign, which allows our customers to electronically review, sign and submit required documentation to us.”

When The Stephenson National Bank & Trust initially closed its lobbies last March, Beth Larson, AVP location administration for SNBT, says staff members picked up the phone and began calling customers to let them know the changes were coming.

“We first called all of our business customers and discussed how we would be changing how we operate,” she says. “With the business clients, we decided to have them call in to tell us what their deposit would be and then set up a time for us to exchange their full bags of dollars and change with an empty bag from us with their receipts already inside for their deposit.”

Larson says employees of the Marinette-based bank also reached out to customers who had CDs coming due to discuss the various options.

“A lot could be done through the mail and many of our CD holders are older and didn’t want to come out,” she says. “We worked very closely with all of our customers to accomplish what was needed.”

Lemke says Investors employees used a variety of methods to stay in touch with customers, recognizing that each one had his or her own comfort level when it came to interacting with others.

“Staying connected to our customers during this time has been paramount, and everything we do at ICB is to ensure our customers have full access to whatever financial services and resources they may need,” he says. “Our staff has done an excellent job adapting, and because of this, our level of service has remained strong.”

As for Bank First, President Mike Dempsey says the changes he’s seen since March have been an acceleration of previous trends.

“We were already seeing an increase in mobile banking, online banking and other new technologies before the pandemic hit. Now it’s just growing faster,” he says. “When we surveyed customers, 75 percent defined good customer service as being able to do what they want when they want to. They still want the bank to be there, but they don’t mind doing something themselves.”

For customers where an in-person meeting is warranted, Dempsey says Manitowoc-based Bank First is “nimble to meet their needs. We also went to a process where we have set up standing appointments, for example with a certain dry-cleaning business on Mondays at 9 a.m. where we can check in and exchange any papers, checks or currency.”

Prepared for change

Unison Credit Union, which is headquartered in Kaukauna, felt ready to continue meeting its customers’ needs using its technology once the lobbies of its six branches closed, says Kelli Clussman, vice president of marketing.

“When our lobbies closed in March, it forced us to pivot from our ‘normal’ way of conducting business, and we were lucky that we had all the tools in place with a full-service drive-thru, electronic loan signing, online banking and mobile check deposit,” she says.

Using technology for banking needs can make some people uncomfortable, Clussman says, adding Unison created mobile banking tutorials to provide customers with a step-by-step guide to help them through the process. The credit union also upgraded its mobile app to make it easier to use and provide a way to keep customers up to date on loan promotions and member information.

“Change can be hard, but change can also be good,” she says.

Flynn says Associated’s prior investment in technology also prepared it well for not only serving customers, but allowing employees to make the switch from working in the office to working at home. “We have 3,000 people working from home and it’s going well,” he says.

Financial institutions allowing customers in their lobby, whether it’s regular hours or by appointment only, have multiple safety measures in place, including plexiglass between customer and employee, requiring masks, providing hand sanitizer and placing markers on the ground reminding people to socially distance.

“This has worked well, and our customers have been able to receive uninterrupted access to the services they depend upon,” says Lemke of Investors.

SNBT’s Larson says that while the bank has taken multiple steps to keep customers safe now that the bank lobby reopened, “traffic continues to be less than what it was before March. I think people are becoming more comfortable with doing more banking online.”

Throughout all of the changes in 2020, Dempsey says it’s been imperative to keep customers informed. “Communication is really important and we’ve tackled that with several different avenues, whether it’s a COVID-19 page on our website listing all the changes or our Tuesday Tips email. We’re constantly looking for ways to make it easier for our customers.”