Essential skills for today's bankers: Patience and empathy

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When the pandemic struck, it threw the banking industry into a massive experiment it had little time to prepare for.

Within weeks, banks nationwide sent thousands upon thousands of employees out of the office to work remotely. Meanwhile, front-line employees became financial first responders, coaching customers through online banking options for the first time and helping newly unemployed borrowers navigate loan forbearances.

Both bank employees and customers were in unfamiliar situations and feeling heightened emotions — the results of which can be stressful and unpleasant but also, in the best cases, emotionally bonding.

“We’re so used to building relationships face to face. ... How do you do that in more of a virtual way?” says Susan LaMonica, chief human resources officer at Citizens Financial Group.
“We’re so used to building relationships face to face. ... How do you do that in more of a virtual way?” says Susan LaMonica, chief human resources officer at Citizens Financial Group.

Now, as banks cautiously start to reopen their workplaces, it’s clear that remote work and digitization will continue for many employees. But what can’t be overlooked is the need for so-called soft skills that bridge the best of the old and new worlds.

“We’re so used to building relationships face to face. A customer comes into a branch, and we establish a rapport face to face. Many of our relationship managers spend time out in the field,” said Susan LaMonica, chief human resources officer at Citizens Financial Group in Providence, R.I. “How do you do that in more of a virtual way? How do you express empathy? How do you create connection? That’s a skill, and that’s something we’re working with our people on to further develop.”

It’s unlikely the pandemic will mean the death of the office, but many retail and commercial banks are likely to try a blended model, in which some employees work remotely at least some of the time. While increased remote working has the potential to be more equitable — by better accommodating employees with disabilities or caregiving responsibilities, for example — it also presents unique challenges.

Not least among those is the task of collaborating and communicating with colleagues across remote environments, said Margie Painter, a principal with Deloitte.

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“I think some of those questions around, ‘How do you grow and manage relationships virtually? And how do you lead and inspire a team virtually?’ are the challenges that will feel quite different for leaders in the workplace now,” she said.

Similarly, bankers who work with commercial and small-business clients will have to learn to develop relationships using newer communications and videoconferencing technology.

“If you think about the human skills that you need with that small-business owner, it’s going to be things like empathy, providing sound objective advice, listening skills,” said Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader for people and organizations at PwC.

Front-line employees — who have long cultivated skills like listening, patience and empathy — have been crucial in working with customers during the pandemic.

Now that they are handling more complicated problems, banks need to make sure they have all the tools they need to do their jobs, Painter said. For example, banks should think about how they can better share knowledge-management systems with contact center workers who are fielding more calls than usual, she said.

“The contact center roles are even more critical than they ever have been. There are folks answering the phones who end up in more complex situations than they ever have before,” she said.

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