How the pandemic changed customer service

As the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, banks and credit unions are learning that the feedback customers provided during the crisis will echo throughout customer-service initiatives in the industry for years to come.

We gathered bankers and industry experts to share their perspective on what existing capabilities worked well, what needed enhancement, and what lessons they learned that can further boost customer service in the post-pandemic “new normal.”

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Digital channels

Banks learned during the pandemic that focusing on customer experience would maximize their ongoing digital transformation efforts, says Graham Tasman, principal, risk advisory service leader and banking sector lead at Chicago-based advisory firm Grant Thornton.

Customers giving feedback on what they needed most during the pandemic shutdowns expedited the launch of Regions Bank’s latest mobile app, says Brandi Miller, senior vice president at the $146 billion bank in Birmingham, Alabama.

“More check deposits and money movement were occurring in mobile than ever before,” Miller says. “We focused on improvements to this functionality, like limit increases and the ability to view check images in our app. We plan on adding more capabilities, such as the availability of account statements on the app and the ability to live chat from mobile.”

Many Wells Fargo customers used the bank’s mobile app for the first time during the shutdowns, says Mary Mack, CEO of consumer and small business banking at the $1.8 trillion bank based in San Francisco. More customers are also now utilizing mobile wallets and contactless payments.

Branch operations

When the country shut down, banks had minimal time to deal with much beyond ensuring reliable network access so their employees could effectively work remotely, Tasman says. “On that first trial they responded surprisingly well.”

At the $1.1 billion Plumas Bank in Quincy, California, branch employees working remotely “were remarkably creative in how they reached out to their clients with poise and compassion,” says Tracy Thurber, vice president, administrative services manager. Employees sent handwritten notes letting clients know how much they missed them, while also providing a list of ways to bank without coming into the branch.

When Plumas’ branches reopened, staff focused on “putting smiles of reassurance in our voices underneath the masks, and clients seemed to feel more at ease,” she says. “We understood that people needed to feel welcomed, safe, respected and served.”

To enable social distancing, Regions’ branches predominately used drive-through lanes and appointment-only meetings with branch staff, reminding customers about scheduling capabilities on the mobile app. Customer feedback provided through surveys and social media was positive.

Wells Fargo developed an in-house digital waitlist solution for select branch locations, to better manage the number of customers inside.

“Customers without a confirmed appointment reserve a place in line with the digital waitlist,” Mack says. “When it is the customer’s turn to meet with a teller or a banker, employees used the system to send a text message to the customer’s mobile device.”

Contact centers

Regions provides an online AI chatbot that connects customers to a contact center agent if the chatbot can’t immediately answer their questions. Thanks to customer feedback during the pandemic, the bank is now looking to expand the AI chatbot functionality to its mobile app.

One community bank proactively called its customers, and it learned that many customers needed employees to walk them through how to use the digital tools, says Chris Acevedo, managing director for financial services at Grant Thornton. The pandemic also accelerated the trend of branch and other staff helping customers in a video format.

As more people used contact centers and digital channels during the shutdowns, J.D. Power customer satisfaction rates initially went down, Acevedo says.

“Banks were exposed to what worked and what they needed to lean into more,” he says. “Most importantly, banks learned that customers wanted empathy and support—they didn’t want to be sold to.” More banks are now leveraging data visualization and performance analytics “to design more effective customer journeys.”

Wells Fargo learned from the first round of Paycheck Protection Program loans that many small businesses that needed help had not applied. The bank conducted a targeted email outreach to more than 500,000 of its small business customers located in low-to-moderate income or majority-minority census tracts, to raise awareness and provide tools to better understand the PPP program.

Banks have learned many things about their customer service levels during the pandemic that they can now leverage to enhance experiences as everyone adopts to the “new normal.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a contributing writer to BAI Banking Strategies.

Find out more about how the pandemic has changed the way banks and credit unions serve their customers in the BAI Executive Report “COVID-19 is remaking customer service…forever”