Coronavirus put Truist's innovation plans on fast track

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Truist Financial is preparing for the next phase of the coronavirus crisis.

The $506 billion-asset company, formed by the December merger of BB&T and SunTrust Banks, took some big initial steps in response to the pandemic.

It committed $25 million in mid-March to help communities hurt by COVID-19, and it also received approvals for $12.6 billion in small-business loans under the government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Truist has pledged another $25 million for nonprofits and volunteer efforts, investments in technology for communities that lack high-tech infrastructure, and small businesses and community development financial institutions.

During the crisis, Truist has learned how to deliver services quicker and more efficiently, says Dontá Wilson, the Charlotte, N.C., company’s chief digital and client experience officer.

New tech products that would have taken months to create are being produced in as little as three days. More customers, especially commercial clients, have grown comfortable with digital banking, while thousands of Truist employees have settled into work-from-home arrangements.

“We’re constantly evaluating” Truist’s operating model, Wilson said in an interview. “One of the silver linings of the crisis is seeing how to deploy our staff remotely when needed.”

Wilson discussed Truist’s latest financial commitment, along with his views on technological innovation in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Why did Truist decide to double its coronavirus commitment?

DONTÁ WILSON: We were excited to see the benefits of our initial round of investment. After 22 days the commitment was oversubscribed. You can’t just watch things like that transpire and not help more.

We also realized that this crisis was going to go on longer than what many people originally thought. There are four stages: an immediate need, an emerging need, a resiliency period and rebuilding. [Assistance] tends to disappear during the last phase, so we started thinking about what would be important as we rebuild.

We realize that small businesses are particularly vulnerable, so we wanted to make sure we dedicated $10 million for technology services and grants with a focus on women- and minority-owned businesses.

We were happy with the progress bridging the tech gap in [underserved communities], but the need was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re going to empower communities, many of them rural, to recover. We’re encouraging solutions for [out-of-school] learning while trying to rebuild the landscape permanently.

Our employees wanted to be active volunteers, but they’re limited by social distancing. So we committed to making a contribution for every mile our employees walk [during the pandemic]. Many galas and nonprofit events have also been postponed, and we want to help those groups in their time of need.

How has the pandemic changed Truist’s approach to innovation? How much of that change will represent a permanent shift for the company?

When we did the deal, it was a merger of equals designed for something more than just cost cutting. We really wanted to move forward meaningfully with innovation by combining touch and technology to develop a high level of trust. We moved digital, data analytics and other functions under the same umbrella.

COVID-19 advanced and accelerated our effort to build technology road maps. … We created a client-experience digital control room that met every day. We partnered with businesses to roll out solutions in days. We built a mortgage chatbot and converted and digitized the manual forms for mortgage forbearance in four days.

"COVID-19 advanced and accelerated our effort to build technology road maps," says Dontá Wilson, Truist's chief digital and client experience officer.

Before PPP, we didn’t have a digital portal. We had to make one work for two heritage systems. We developed a customer [application programming interface] in the middle of this and expanded e-signature for people remotely. None of these initiatives took more than 10 days to build and most were created in three to four days.

That’s how we’re going to do work going forward. We’ll work with the client and be agile to do in days what used to take six to nine months.

What did the pandemic do for digital adoption rates? Do you think new adopters will continue to use digital channels when the crisis passes?

We were already seeing digital transactions improving year over year, but COVID-19 has us moving down an accelerated path. You had people who started using their computers to log on to review account balances, then they started using mobile check deposit services. They have become more engaged, seeing the convenience and wondering why they would go back to [in-person banking]. It is similar to my experience with grocery pickup. I had never used it before, but I’ve come to really like it.

And I think we’ve done a good job of educating people about digital banking, including a simulator on our website to get them comfortable with our products and services.

How effective has work from home been? Other Truist executives have discussed using the model more when things normalize.

We have fantastic teammates. The environment and location doesn’t matter to them. Their commitment has been on fire. They figured out how to be successful even when they were working remotely.

We’re constantly evaluating the [model]. One of the silver linings of the crisis is seeing how to deploy our staff remotely when needed.

Any other crisis-related takeaways that you think will be permanent fixtures at Truist?

We’ve experienced a new way of doing work, discovering how to co-create in days versus months and years. The crisis also accelerated the bonding necessary to create a new culture. It allowed employees from both [predecessor banks] to see what we’re about in terms of providing tutoring [for their children], flexible work schedules and child care assistance.

When you’re rolling out your brand, you want to tell your story. You come into it with a whole agenda in mind. COVID was not in the plan. But our customers’ first interaction will be through this experience, and that will stand out for them. I think that’s a permanent thing that will link us to our communities.

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