Digital training for bankers paying off in coronavirus crisis

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These days, social distancing means it’s unwise for a teller to look over a customer’s shoulder or whip out a tablet for a quick demo when the customer needs help, say, depositing a check by phone — if the bank is even letting customers visit branches at all.

But banks that have invested heavily in training their employees to be more digitally savvy are finding themselves well prepared to support customers who need to replicate in-person transactions online or by app.

At the same time, they have had to creatively tweak their tactics as branches transition to drive-through lanes, allow visits by appointment only, or close completely to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Digital banking

“Now is time to be equipping branch staff to educate every customer that comes in with account questions,” said Bob Meara, senior analyst at Celent. “In the past, it was kind of nice — ‘We love to see you, come as often as you want, but there’s a way to do it without leaving home.’ In today’s environment this is not just a courtesy, but ‘it’s really important we show you how to do this, and someone is here right now to help you.’ ”

Banks have taken a variety of approaches to training their employees, but all have the same result: a more versatile workforce that can help smooth out ripples in customer service, which has become increasingly important as customers must rely on digital banking. It has also given some banks food for thought about how to adjust course in the future.

The formal approach

OceanFirst Bank, based in Toms River, N.J., designed its seven-week Certified Digital Banker program to cover account activation, direct deposit, mobile activity, peer-to-peer payment systems and digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Android Pay. All customer-facing employees graduate well versed in financial technology and ready to help customers with a variety of tasks — even if those tasks do not wholly take place on the OceanFirst platform.

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“Our customers want to use a wide variety of payment options,” said Christopher Maher, CEO of OceanFirst Bank, a $10.2 billion-asset company. "There will be days when they use Venmo to split a bar bill, Zelle to forward cash to a sibling or parent, and PayPal to buy something online. We trained our people to help with everything.”

The reason is, “we want to be in the nexus of their financial transactions,” he said. “The more welcoming we are, the more likely we are to maintain status as their primary financial institution.”

Now, much of OceanFirst’s customer support has moved to the phones. Starting March 17, the bank temporarily closed several branches and restricted the rest to drive-through service or, in rare cases, teller transactions in the absence of a drive-through lane. It also has 14 “remote teller” sites, where customers can interact with a live banker by video to make loan payments, cash checks or complete other tasks they would normally take to a regular branch.

“Fortunately, we were well ahead of the curve in preparing for this, as our digital support channels are incredibly strong,” Maher said.

The training program is identical for both in-branch and contact center employees. That means, for example, that while a teller could use a branch iPad or the customer’s own smartphone to show them how to open an account, or register their debit card with a digital wallet, the call center employee would talk them through the process or text them a link while staying on the line.

Recently, these roles have almost melded: OceanFirst has taken the unusual step of rerouting some calls to a branch (where staff are still working, even if the lobby is closed) when the wait time at the contact center exceeds three minutes.

The U.S. banking unit of BBVA, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., took a more focused approach. The bank developed its own training program, dubbed Blue Maverick, that teaches branch staffers proficiency on the mobile app, so they can convey the benefits of mobile banking to customers on the spot.

“All branch employees focus on opening and servicing customer accounts, while simultaneously educating customers about the tools that will help them manage and control their finances,” said Cody Sparks, executive vice president of relationship model discipline at BBVA USA.

To track the demonstrations, the institution built an in-app feature called BankerDemo that reports all the activity the employee and customer perform together, including mobile deposit, payments, transfers and bill pay. They use the data to help branch bankers figure out their next steps in engaging with customers for in-person mobile demonstrations.

Now, the bank is relying more heavily on verbal instructions and how-to videos on the BBVA website to guide customers through the app, and promoting the convenience of its digital channels.

The gamified approach

When M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y., started rethinking how its employees could guide customers through using its online and mobile banking tools, it also rejiggered the layout of branch furniture.

“We used to have service counters that looked like massive old-school hot tubs,” said Brandon Horbowicz, who runs retail education and behavioral change for M&T’s branch network.

Stationary monitors made it difficult to swivel the screen toward customers, and physical barriers were less conducive to the side-by-side tutorials M&T hoped to encourage. Now, service counters are more open, with multiple levels accommodating those who want to sit or stand, and larger monitors at platform desks that can turn towards the customer.

Brandon Horbowicz, vice president and senior sales strategy manager, M&T’s branch network
M&T Bank is shifting from teaching customers how to use its digital tools in the branches to online tutorials, according to Brandon Horbowicz, vice president and senior sales strategy manager at M&T.

The $120 billion-asset M&T Bank does not make its digital training mandatory. But with the help of Horizn, a company that helps financial institution employees and customers become digitally fluent, the bank created a set of simulators that walk employees through a variety of online and mobile banking tasks.

Staff who practice using the new simulators and teach these skills to customers earn points and badges, which can lead to quarterly incentive payments. The initiative kicked off by distributing $5 checks to employees and encouraging them to deposit the checks by app so they could see firsthand how easy it was.

“We had to get away from 45-minute web-based trainings that try to teach every scenario without letting employees actually practice it,” Horbowicz said. “We needed to let employees play with the actual functionality. They can better educate the customer once they are educated themselves.”

The training program opened to their retail branch staff in 2019, and to the business banking division this past January. The result: Before the coronavirus crisis hit, branch employees averaged about 5,000 side-by-side demos each week, in which a staff member may have stood by as a customer tried out suggestions, or swiveled a monitor towards the customer.

Starting March 23, M&T scaled back branch operations. Most of its 700 branches operate by appointment only in the lobbies or by drive-through lanes, although about 30% take walk-ins, with barriers separating customers and tellers. This means the number of side-by-side demos are going down, Horbowicz said. But the same online simulators that walk employees through mobile check deposit, Zelle payments and more are available to the public on M&T’s website.

While M&T’s contact center is not currently using the Horizn platform, contact center staffers are working to address customer queries in the second quarter by emailing helpful tutorials to callers — an initiative that began before the coronavirus crisis struck — rather than simply referring to the text of their manuals.

Overall, the best employee training happens through a combination of videos, live conferencing and frequent communication, said Joe Welu, founder and CEO of Total Expert, which helps financial companies with marketing and customer engagement.

“Banks need to continuously refresh and hone skills,” he said. “Most banks do trainings for one or two days, but consistency and follow-up on how to use digital tools makes the difference.”

Reaching all types

All three institutions have found that their older customers — perhaps already accustomed to staying connected with their young relatives online — have adapted well to digital tools, sometimes more quickly than expected.

“We made the assumption going in that all these features will be great, but we're not going to be able to convert some of our older customers,” Horbowciz said. “It’s been the exact opposite.”

Plus, for some banks, the success of their early training initiatives has inspired them to go further. OceanFirst is developing a second-tier program for less routine requests, such as transferring money between OceanFirst and an external bank account or using CardValet to geo-restrict a debit card. The situation has also made Maher wonder about the role of branches in OceanFirst’s future.

“People immediately recognized the value to working with us while maintaining social distancing,” Maher said. “One of the silver linings is now customers and staff are becoming quite expert at working with each other without being face to face.”

Horbowicz also hopes to broaden trainings to cover more complex situations. And, like Maher, he feels that loyalty will come from meeting customer needs, whatever they are, rather than fearing that exposure to digital tools will push them further from the branch.

“Customers are going to seek out digital capabilities, whether it’s through us or through a competitor,” he said. “We don’t want to be Blockbuster, ignoring Netflix and Redbox when Blockbuster was trying to save its business.”

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Digital banking Mobile banking Online banking BBVA M&T Bank Coronavirus