Coronavirus crisis forces banks to be nimble with customer service

The work-from-home trend was gaining popularity well before the pandemic forced millions of Americans to do their jobs remotely. Customer service overall has increasingly embraced telecommuting—and just not within banking, where it is driven by compliance and regulatory concerns and a greater need to protect customers’ personal information.

The lessons for banks from the global health crisis: They must be more flexible in times of crisis. There’s more to consider than just the security aspect. And customer service reps are people, not a commodity.

“I think banks will become more nimble,” said Dan Stevens, executive vice president and chief of operations for Dubuque, Iowa-based Heartland USA Inc., a holding company for 11 community banks in the Midwest and western U.S.

Before COVID-19, Heartland invested in a “best-in-class call center solution” that would allow reps to work from home, but Stevens isn’t sure that WFH will be a long-term trend for banks’ customer service teams in ordinary times.

“There are advantages to a call center being together because you have esprit de corps, teamwork and visuals to help with answering calls and a motivating factor to being together,” he said.

One downside has been training, Stevens said. Self-isolating and social-distancing requirements mean training must be virtual, rather than live in the call centers. And staff are responding to more complicated questions – fewer calls about passwords or balance queries, and many more are about bank relief programs and the CARES Act.

Work-from-home for the long term?

It’s too soon to say if the trend of at-home customer service will stick for banks, said Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader, people and organization at PwC in New York. There are too many unknowns, he said, rattling off just a few of many questions facing employers and employees alike: How many workers will want to come back to the office, and when? What personal or family health concerns will workers have? Who will still feel vulnerable and for how long?

“This is a great experiment that has been forced on us, but it is not a one-size-fits-all,” Sethi said.

For as long as work-from-home is the reality for banks’ customer service teams, managers must manage, engage and support their people differently than before.

“Management styles may need to adjust,” says Laurie Guest, an author, trainer and keynote speaker whose expertise is customer service. “Leaders will need to engage with their teams in different ways, especially if a hands-off approach was used in the past.”

Guest, who is based in DeKalb, Ill., made three recommendations to managers.

· Acknowledge the challenges employees face in working from home, and let them know you appreciate them doing the best they can.
· If possible, reset work production expectations. They might take fewer calls. They might take longer on each call.
· Take time to solicit feedback and listen to employees’ concerns, and respond with action and empathy when possible.

Sethi, the people and organization expert from PwC, agreed that the so-called “softer” side of managing is important with workers at home during a public health crisis.

“Your call center reps are not a single asset class,” he said. “They are different. There’s different stuff they need.”

As a leader himself, Sethi said the coronavirus crisis has caused him to get to know more about his team members’ personal lives—like who has homeschooling responsibilities, who is taking care of sick family members, and who is worried about their personal health.

Nobody knows if the work-from-home experiment will work for banks’ customer service departments in the long run. But as we navigate this new reality, banks should take the time to strengthen their relationships with employees and give them grace and appreciation for getting the job done however and wherever they can.

“The lesson is to really understand your people,” Sethi said. “Understand their work and how they work and their mental and physical health.”

Amy George is a freelance writer who lives in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked as a reporter and editor at The Associated Press and the Charlotte Observer, and in corporate communications at Wells Fargo.