Coronavirus through the eyes of front-line bankers

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In the early days of the pandemic, Evan Elder assembled his branch team to hit the phones, but this would be no routine sales call.

Elder, a retail market manager with the $48 billion-asset Synovus Financial, had pulled together a list of deposit accounts at his Athens, Ga., branch that didn’t have debit cards associated with them. Tellers offered more than 1,000 customers a debit card so they could withdraw cash from ATMs in lieu of visiting the branch — and about 300 customers took them up on it.

“We had great success calling,” he said. “We came up with a script, making sure people know we’re not trying to sell you on anything, and we want to make sure that with these times that we’re in, you can bank as efficiently as possible.”

Elder’s story is one example of how front-line bankers, often overlooked in narratives about essential workers, are adapting to challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. They’re working long hours to process emergency-relief loans for small businesses, and they’re coaching customers by phone as many of them navigate online or mobile banking for the first time. They’re making house calls for elderly customers afraid to venture outside, and easing fears about the soundness of the banking system and availability of cash.

Front-line bankers
“You can see [the stress] in their faces,” Gladys Martinez (left), branch manager at Reading Cooperative Bank in Andover, Mass., said of her small-business clients. Evan Elder, retail market manager with Synovus in Athens, Ga., had his team call 1,000 customers who might need a debit card. “All they need is a little confidence that they can do this,” Melissa Jones, a personal banker in Houston with Frost Bank, said of elderly customers navigating mobile banking for the first time.

Nervous customers started showing up at the outset of the crisis to withdraw large sums, several bankers said.

“There was an initial run for cash. People were wanting to just take out their money and put it under their mattress or something,” said Eustaquio Paco Martinez, who manages the Hutto, Tex., branch of the $129 billion-asset Regions Financial. “There was really no rhyme or reason to it. They were concerned the banks might go under, and that surprised me at first. Once we put their mind at ease, a lot of those cash runs have gone away.”

Zach Turner, who manages Regions’ Ooltewah, Tenn., branch, said many of his customers pay their utility bills in cash. Several weeks into the pandemic, many of those companies 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 run into the same problem.

“We were able to spread the word to other customers so they didn’t experience the same thing, hitting that roadblock and having to make another trip back and keeping themselves out longer than they needed to be,” Turner said.

As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, seven tornadoes hit the Tennessee Valley in mid-April. Bankers and customers alike faced ruined infrastructure and internet and power outages. Once Turner’s branch got back up and running, his team pivoted to helping customers handle large insurance payments related to the natural disaster.

Meanwhile, drive-through window service has been revived out of necessity. Several bankers interviewed for this story said that drive-through traffic had been falling before the coronavirus struck. But it’s now become an important channel for serving customers with needs that can’t be met over the phone or online.

Gladys Martinez, a branch manager with the $597 million-asset Reading Cooperative Bank in Massachusetts, discussed how she’s been working with a longtime customer who needs a notary public once a month. This customer needs documents notarized in order to receive monthly payments from a settlement, but he does not drive, instead taking the bus from the neighboring city of Lawrence to the branch Martinez manages in Andover, Mass.

Like most other banks, Reading Cooperative has limited its branch access to the drive-through window since mid-March. Martinez knows this customer well, so she notarizes his documents for him when he walks up to the drive-through window now.

But bankers say they aren’t necessarily encouraging every customer to use that channel.

Branch bankers with the $34 billion-asset Cullen/Frost Bankers in San Antonio have spent a good deal of time on the phone, steering less tech-savvy customers through online or mobile banking or Zelle. While the drive-through window is open, bankers have generally discouraged older customers from even using that option simply because they belong to a higher-risk population.

Most of those customers are capable of conducting digital banking, but nervous because it’s new to them. They just require some patience and reassurance, said Melissa Jones, a personal banker in Houston.

“All they need is a little confidence that they can do this,” she said. “Some of them just don’t like it, so we don’t push it on them.”

Cathy Becker, a senior personal banker in San Antonio, said she has sometimes mailed documents to customers reluctant to come into the branch or use digital options.

In some respects, bankers on the front lines have become counselors. They’re seeing widespread anxiety and fear of the unknown and helping customers facing stressful financial issues.

Many of the small-business clients Martinez sees at Reading Cooperative had only recently regained their footing after the gas explosions that devastated communities in the area in 2018.

“You can see it in their faces,” she said. “They carry the weight of what is happening in their demeanor.”

Catherine Storey, a Synovus branch manager in Alpharetta, Ga., described longtime customers who snapped during the worst of the shutdown, but later returned offering prayers, apologies and in some cases free meals.

“I’ve seen a lot in my 50 years" in banking, "but I’ve never seen anything that’s been this stressful. After we got through 2008 – 2010, I never thought we’d see anything that would be so awful,” she said. “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly from my customers.”

Jane Ammon, a deposit operations specialist with Reading Cooperative, described a call with an employee at Bedford Veterans Affairs Hospital who had recovered from COVID-19 and wanted to get his financial affairs in order before returning 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 upbeat, and it just put things in perspective,” Ammon said.

Ammon also said branch managers have paid house calls to customers who are afraid to leave home, often those who are elderly or otherwise face a higher risk from the virus.

And Regions’ Martinez gathered a few of his bankers together to help a local business owner make face shields after work.

The graphic design and print shop isn’t a Regions client, but Martinez knew the owner through his involvement with the local Chamber of Commerce. Chamber members brainstormed different ways to keep the local economy afloat during the pandemic. If one business had to lay off staff, for instance, it would contact another business that needed extra help.

So when demand ground to a halt for Fingerprint Ideas, the owner decided to repurpose his physical materials into face shields, which he’s both sold and donated. Martinez likened the evening helping out to a team-building exercise. (He assured American Banker that they were all able to maintain social distancing.)

“We got that much closer,” he said. “We were doing something good.”

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