The coronavirus through the eyes of frontline bankers
At the start of the pandemic, Evan Elder assembled his branch team to call, but it wouldn’t be a routine sales call.
Elder, a retail market manager with $ 48 billion in Synovus Financial assets, had compiled a list of deposit accounts at his branch in Athens, Georgia that did not have associated debit cards. Cashiers have offered debit cards to over 1,000 customers so they can withdraw money from ATMs instead of going to the branch – and about 300 customers have accepted them.
“We’ve had a lot of success calling,” he said. “We’ve put together a script, making sure people know we’re not trying to sell you anything, and we want to make sure that with this period we’re in, you can do your banking as efficiently as possible.”
Elder’s story is an example of how frontline bankers, often overlooked in essential worker narratives, are adjusting to the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. They work long hours to process emergency loans for small businesses, and they mentor clients over the phone, as many are new to online or mobile banking. They make home visits for elderly clients who are afraid to venture out and alleviate fears about the soundness of the banking system and the availability of liquidity.
Nervous clients began to show up early in the crisis to withdraw large sums, several bankers said.
“There was a first race for the money. People just wanted to get their money out and put it under their mattresses or something, ”said Eustaquio Paco Martinez, who manages the Hutto, Texas branch of Regions Financial, with $ 129 billion in assets. “There really was no rhyme or reason for it. They were worried that the banks would go bankrupt, and that surprised me at first. Once we put their minds at ease, a lot of those money rushes are gone. “
Zach Turner, who runs the Regions branch in Ooltewah, Tenn., Said many of his clients pay their utility bills in cash. Several weeks after the start of the pandemic, many of these businesses stopped accepting cash payments, forcing some customers to return to the bank for a money order. Turner said his bankers made sure to warn others who might be having the same problem.
“We were able to spread the word to other clients so they didn’t go through the same thing, hitting that roadblock and having to take another trip back and stand outside longer than necessary,” Turner said. .
As if a global pandemic wasn’t a challenge enough, seven tornadoes hit the Tennessee Valley in mid-April. Bankers and customers alike have faced crumbling infrastructure, internet and power outages. After Turner’s branch restarted, his team turned to helping clients manage the large insurance payments related to the natural disaster.
Meanwhile, the drive-thru counter service was revived out of necessity. Several bankers interviewed for this story said traffic behind the wheel declined before the coronavirus hit. But it has now become an important channel for serving customers whose needs cannot be met over the phone or online.
Gladys Martinez, branch manager of the $ 597 million-asset Reading Cooperative Bank in Massachusetts, explained how she worked with a long-time client who needs a notary once a month. This client needs notarized documents to receive the monthly settlement payments, but he doesn’t drive, instead taking the bus from the nearby town of Lawrence to the branch that Martinez operates in Andover, Mass.
Like most other banks, Reading Cooperative restricted their branch access to the drive-thru window since mid-March. Martinez knows this client well, so she notarizes his documents for him when he walks now to the drive-thru window.
But bankers say they don’t necessarily encourage every customer to use this channel.
Branch bankers with the $ 34 billion in Cullen / Frost Bankers assets in San Antonio have spent a lot of time on the phone, directing less tech-savvy customers through online or mobile banking or Zelle. While the drive-thru window is open, bankers have generally discouraged older customers from using this option simply because they belong to a higher risk population.
Most of these customers are able to do digital banking, but nervous because it’s new to them. They just require a little patience and reassurance, said Melissa Jones, a personal banker in Houston.
“All they need is a little confidence that they can do it,” she said. “Some of them just don’t like it, so we don’t force it on them.”
Cathy Becker, a senior personal banker in San Antonio, said she sometimes mailed documents to clients reluctant to enter the branch or use digital options.
In some ways, frontline bankers have become advisers. They see widespread anxiety and fear of the unknown and help clients with stressful financial issues.
Many of the small business clients Martinez sees at the Reading Co-op had only recently regained a foothold after gas explosions that devastated communities in the region in 2018.
“You can see it in their faces,” she said. “They bear the brunt of what’s going on in their behavior.”
Catherine Storey, Synovus branch manager in Alpharetta, Georgia, described long-time customers who broke down during the worst of the shutdown, but returned later offering prayers, apologies and, in some cases, meals free.
“I’ve seen a lot of it in my 50 years ‘in banking,’ but I’ve never seen anything so stressful. After going through 2008-2010, I never thought we would see anything. something so awful, “she said.” I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in my clients. ”
Jane Ammon, depository operations specialist at Reading Cooperative, described a call with an employee at Bedford Veterans Hospital who had recovered from COVID-19 and wanted to get his financial house in order before go back to work.
She expressed some surprise at his eagerness to return, but he said the hospital needed all the help it could get. “He was so optimistic, and that just put things in perspective,” Ammon said.
Ammon also said branch managers have paid home visits to customers who are afraid to leave their homes, often those who are elderly or face a higher risk of the virus.
And Martinez de Regions brought together some of his bankers to help a local business owner make face shields after work.
The graphic design and print shop is not a client of Regions, but Martinez knew the owner through his involvement with the local Chamber of Commerce. Members of the House reflected on different ways to keep the local economy afloat during the pandemic. If a company were to lay off staff, for example, it would contact another company that needed additional help.
So when demand stopped for Fingerprint Ideas, the owner decided to repurpose his physical materials into face shields, which he both sold and donated. Martinez compared the evening to a team building exercise. (He assured American Banker that they were all able to maintain social distancing.)
“We got very close,” he said. “We were doing something right.”