American Banker Article2

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

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.

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.”