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For community banks, a call to interaction


Like many bankers, Ellie Reineck, wants to make sure customers who interact with her internet bank get the same personal treatment as those who walk into their parent company’s branches. Call it treatment that gives them a lift—which you’re definitely hinting at when your logo is the silhouette of a barbell-lifting strongman.

“We put a lot of focus on the human issues,” says Reineck, president of IncredibleBank, a division of Wausau, Wisconsin-based River Valley Bank. “We want to make sure we maintain the same quality of human interaction with our customers.”

That Reineck even has to stress the word “human” shows how much banking has changed from just 10 years ago, a time before mobile apps. But community banks—too often stereotyped as laggards in the race to reach customers in new ways—are showing ingenuity when it comes to establishing and bolstering customer connections.

Take IncredibleBank, an all-digital operation. It allows River Valley—a community bank with $1.26 billion in assets—to pursue customers beyond its traditional market region. But what about when those people need help?

Enter the “digital concierge.”

IncredibleBank’s digital concierge program assigns employees to work with digital customers. Two employees get assigned to the internet customer base; when someone calls with a question or complaint, they’re routed directly to the concierge instead of a regular call center employee. With full access to digital customers’ accounts, the concierges come equipped to deal with their needs. (In fact, they’ve worked so well that River Valley hopes to apply the concept at the home bank for customers who bank in large part digitally.)

One of IncredibleBank’s concierges, a former personal banker, is based in River Valley’s Kalamazoo, Michigan office; the other, a former call center employee, works at the bank’s home office. “They each came with different bank experiences, so they were able to cross train each other,” Reineck says.

The concierges also make routine customer calls, with new digital bank customers contacted two weeks after they open an account. “We ask if they received their debit cards and if everything is working okay,” Reineck says. “It’s a chance to personally welcome them to the bank and see if they have any needs to meet.”

And where other banks have a drive thru, Incredible drives up—literally.

As IncredibleBank has a large operation (known as “On-ramp”) that finances motor homes and luxury motor coaches, it bought its own motor home. Now bank employees hit the road to meet with customers and potential customers. By attending motor home rallies and courts all over the country in the vehicle, employees can interact with motor home owners to discuss their financial priorities.

Digital customers, customized treatment

Other bank experts see interaction with digital customers as a major challenge for community banks.

“So much of internet banking is based on price,” says Jay Wittman, a former bank CFO and now an independent consultant. “Banks need to get to know their customers and interact with them to reduce that price dependency.”

The onboarding phase makes for an ideal occasion to communicate with customers. With online account applications, banks call customers to verify information for fraud and regulatory purposes. But that’s also a great opportunity to talk to new customers and learn more about them. “You need to get to know people on a first-name basis,” Wittman says.

Tiffani Montez, retail banking senior analyst with Boston-based Aite Group, says banks should even personalize electronic messages so that they deal with customers’ specific needs, Montez says” “They should include a financial picture of the customer and show you understand the relationship. It shouldn’t be a letter where you just insert name.”

For example: Can your community bank or financial institution help customers develop financial budgets and goals through your electronic messages?

“If a customer sets a household spending budget of $500 a month and they’ve just spent $450, the bank could send them a notice,” Montez says. “Consumers want more insight into their spending habits so that they can make actionable choices.”

Analytical tools can also identify life events related to each customer and help craft customized messages around them, she adds. If a bank sees a customer has teenage children nearing high school graduation, messages of congratulations could accompany material about college loans.

Social media also makes for an excellent forum to interact with digital customers, Wittman says. Banks with Facebook pages or blogs have a great vehicle to talk to customers and engage dialogues. Banks should also monitor online chat rooms related to financial topics to see what customers are saying—and react accordingly if the situation (or complaint) warrants.

Additionally, online surveys help banks reach out to customers to gauge their happiness with products, rates and services—so long as they’re easy and fast to complete.

And because so many customers conduct basic transactions online, banks need to change how they interact when those people visit branches—making them feel more like café-type social settings where they can converse with bank employees about meaningful financial topics, Wittman says.

“When customers do go into your branch, take advantage of it,” Montez notes. “There is an opportunity for communication. Try to understand why they are coming in.”

Dealing with digital customers often forces community banks to rethink their community bank in the context of other “communities,” including digital ones.

As Montez puts it: “Communities are no longer defined by what states we’re in. Communities are where your customers are. We’re taking community banking to another level in how we reach out and interact with them.”

In other words, reach out by whatever vehicle works: whether by mobile phone or mobile home.

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Lauri Giesen has spent more than 25 years writing about banking technology and payments for numerous business and financial publications. In the 1990s, she founded and edited Financial Service Online, a magazine covering Internet-based forays into banking and investment services.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our recent Executive Report: Community Banking: Tackling challenges in changing times.