The COVID-19 pandemic is changing how the world does business, and the banking industry is evolving along with it.

As banks have limited in-person encounters at their branches, customers increasingly have embraced digital services.

Most banks have been building out their digital interfaces for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic “kind of forced the issue,” said Liz Finn, vice president for center operations at Ent Credit Union.

Banks and credit unions are seeking to make digital platforms as customer-friendly as possible and adding human touches to digital services.

They’re also creating new ways to help customers bank online, from video tutorials to “cobrowsing,” which allows service representatives to guide clients through banking operations.

As branches reopen, some customers have resumed in-person banking, but many others prefer the convenience and physical distancing that digital banking provides. 

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It’s a trend that will continue and strengthen as the world moves through the pandemic, bankers say.

ENT CREDIT UNION

Ent has reopened 31 of its 40 branches but is seeing greater use of digital channels than before the pandemic.

“Our service model dictated that we want to be available for our members in whatever channel that they want to come to us in and for many people on a daily basis, they would prefer to not have to come into the branch locations,” said Tanan Miles, vice president of electronic banking.

Miles estimated that digital services are growing 15-20 percent annually and expects that growth to continue.

“Over 75 percent of our members utilize online or mobile banking, and 75 percent of those specifically utilize mobile,” he said.

Ent has created a more robust remote deposit capture that allows businesses to scan and deposit checks, Miles said. If they must deposit cash, businesses can use after-hours depositories and access receipts through the online banking platform.

Ent also has been building out those digital platforms for both businesses and consumers.

“For businesses, there is very much the same desire for immediate access to information, to transaction history — just access to accounts,” Miles said.

Because customers still want to interact with people, the credit union posted service representatives outside at drive-up stations — wearing masks and gloves — during the time while Ent’s lobbies were closed.

“We found that it really helped to have an employee out in the parking lot, talking to people engaging with them, and answering questions,” Finn said.

The outside employees were able to guide customers to the interactive teller machines Ent has installed at several locations. 

“Most people thought these were just fancy ATMs,” Finn said, “but you can talk to a live person via video.”

Ent, which has long been providing financial education programs in person and through its website, has instituted new educational programs and streamlined procedures to make digital transactions easier for customers.

“For individuals with loans with us that need to skip a payment or need to restructure their payment terms or maybe [get] an emergency loan, we’ve tried to create very simple flows for that inside of our digital channels” that require only a couple of clicks, Miles said.

“We’re always putting out videos that show new features and try to say to the member, ‘Here’s the value that we see in this product,’” he said. “It’s our hope and our aspiration as a digital service provider, that when they interact with us through their mobile app or through online banking, that the interface is intuitive enough that they don’t need a user’s manual to help them figure out how to take advantage of the functionalities there.”

One advantage of digital banking is immediate access that allows a business or consumer to continually monitor account activity.

“You can set up alerts to know what activity is going on in your account,” Miles said, so the account holder can act immediately in case of a fraudulent transaction.

For people who must come to branches to conduct transactions, Ent is minimizing the number of members in a branch at a given time and, like other credit unions and banks, is following safety guidelines to protect customers and employees.

“We’re asking everyone to wear a mask,” Finn said. “We are wearing masks, and we’re wiping everything down” before and after every member encounter.

Finn said the credit union is working on getting the remaining branches open over the next several weeks.

VECTRA BANK

Although Vectra has reopened its two branches in Colorado Springs and installed Plexiglas barriers between tellers and customers, “we’ve been teaching our customers not to use our branches,” President and CEO Bruce Alexander said.

Businesses and consumers are finding digital transactions are not only more convenient but more secure than using cash or checks.

“The industry was headed in that direction anyway,” he said. “This has just accelerated it, sort of like telemedicine.

As long as people follow safety protocols such as not giving out account information and making sure they get receipts, “I actually think it’s probably a safer way to do business,” he said.

Vectra provides business customers with check scanners that can process and digitize deposits. It’s a popular service for customers who want to avoid handling cash and coming into the bank, he said.

Vectra was proactive in providing payment deferrals for business loans and was active in the Paycheck Protection Program, Alexander said, and is continuing to steer business customers to bridge loans and other courses[sources?] of capital.

While parts of those processes can be handled digitally, “these kinds of things really need to be done face to face, because we’re sort of an economic advisor to these folks,” he said. “We can explain to them what they qualify for or don’t qualify for, and I think customers really need to be forthcoming in terms of sharing their financial information and creating solutions.”

However, those meetings can take place via Zoom or other online platforms if customers don’t want to meet in person.

US BANK

Digital transactions and especially use of mobile apps have increased exponentially at US Bank over the past 90 days, said Heidi Manus, Mountain States digital lead.

“We have created a lot of tools to make the digital platforms easier for a client to understand and be comfortable with,” Manus said.

One such tool is Digital Explorer, a series of short videos on how to use the bank’s digital platforms.

“We can email all of them at one time to a customer, or we can find out what the customer’s specific needs or specific question is,” she said. For example, a minute-long video walks a customer step by step through making a mobile check deposit.

“Digital Explorer has been a huge help to our clients and is very user-friendly,” she said.

The bank also has offered the option for employees to cobrowse with clients.

“That means that we can join you on your digital platform, whether it be online banking or the mobile app,” Manus said. “The customer can pull us up and click on Cobrowse and give us a code. Then we can join the customer in their digital session. … We can see screen by screen and click by click in real time what those customers are doing and help them through.”

Cobrowsing has been “a game changer for our customers,” she said, including those who are already comfortable with the bank’s digital platform but are trying something new, as well as people who are new to digital banking.

Manus said she had a customer who cried with relief when she learned how to use digital banking.

“She was in remission from cancer. She couldn’t leave the house, and she just carried this weight of the stress of managing her finances without being able to leave the house,” she said.

Manus said she even had a marriage proposal from an 82-year-old customer who had never done any digital banking after Manus spent half an hour walking him through the process.

“We buckled down and just started reaching out to every single person we could, and really just checking in and making sure they were OK and how we can give them some assistance,” she said. “That’s what led to cobrowsing and Digital Explorer. I’m really proud of the things that we’ve done.”

PIKES PEAK NATIONAL BANK

Pikes Peak National Bank encourages customers to use digital channels and has seen accelerated adoption of its mobile platform during the pandemic, said President and CEO Robin Roberts.

“We work with customers one-on-one who need help with digital banking,” Roberts said. Clients can talk by phone with representatives who walk them through digital setup or can come in for personalized assistance.

“Some customers are uncomfortable using digital channels. For those customers we still have traditional delivery channels such as drive-thru banking and in-person appointments in our branches,” she said.

Cash transactions, cashier’s checks, wire transfers, accessing safe deposit boxes and complicated account maintenance are among the operations that are still happening face to face. 

When tellers have to handle cash, they wear gloves that are switched out after each transaction.

Customers set appointments for in-person transactions, and each branch follows best practices including masks, social distancing and disinfecting public areas.

“There are only specific areas of each branch that customers go into,” Roberts said. 

“Customers can also handle some routine account maintenance items at the walk-up facilities in three of our four branches,” Roberts said.

“I believe we will continue to see a higher adoption rate of digital banking due to COVID,” she said. “Banks will be investing more in their digital channels to continue to make it more convenient for customers. And I think that digital channels will continue to improve, probably in ways that we can’t even think about right now, and banking will continue to evolve along with that.”

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