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Managing customer relationships in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 is testing the limits of customer service in a major way. The pandemic has suddenly made digital the primary customer touchpoint, forcing institutions to reevaluate the capabilities and limitations of their digital offerings. In a crisis, the needs of consumers and businesses are less conventional and more critical than ever, and offering a slow, lightweight digital experience simply won’t cut it.

Modern technology has enabled live, immediate, actionable conversations inside digital banking. Even better, these digital interactions are fielded on-demand by the same tellers staffing branches, the ones customers already know and trust. When consumers or businesses are threatened with financial catastrophe or uncertainty, they only want one thing: to speak with a real person—preferably someone with whom they have continuity and history.

Community institutions are prioritizing this combination of human and digital touchpoints, extending personal support beyond the limits of the branch and self-service to restore their relationship-based banking model. Delivering secure, encrypted, fully authenticated chat in real time enables banks to more easily serve customers at their precise moments of need.

The most promising chat channels are directly connected to the bank’s core, enabling chat that is informational and transactional. Such integration allows bank staff to easily present actionable multiple-choice lists inside the context of a conversational thread, delivering value and enabling resolution in real time. Customers are also empowered to remotely complete tasks once reserved for the branch or call center.

For example, consider a customer that notices an unfamiliar or duplicate transaction. While this previously might have been considered a mundane issue, during a time when many are out of work, any unaccounted-for charge quickly becomes an urgent matter.

With the digital chat, the customer would be able to initiate a conversation with a trusted local banker and seamlessly and securely attach the transaction in question inside the chat channel, providing the context the bank employee needs to quickly resolve the problem. No trying to describe details of the transaction over the phone, no scrolling to find what day or time it occurred and no painstakingly spelling out the name or amount. The process becomes faster, easier and less frustrating for all involved.

This type of digital, personal service is imperative during social distancing. In addition to allowing banks to better help customers with a wider variety of tasks, it also provides a way for them to proactively and meaningfully reach out to their communities.

Banks can share messages that range from “Stay safe and please be advised of our updated hours” to “Here are the cleaning precautions and/or limitations we’re enforcing at all branches.” Whatever the content of the message, such outreach reminds consumers and businesses that a live, local person from their trusted bank is there, only a click away. The value of this familiarity and comfort can’t be overstated, and it will be remembered. This is what breeds loyalty.

The nation has several economic stress points. More than 10 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in March, and economists predict that this number will continue to multiply due to the measures taken to try to contain the novel coronavirus. Many small businesses have also been forced to shut their doors or scale back operations. It’s clear why consumers and businesses need a real person who can intelligently address their financial questions and concerns at the first point of contact. They don’t have the patience or stress capacity to dial into a call center, re-authenticate identity, remember the account number in question, and verbally describe the details of the issue from the beginning. If banks ask them to, they won’t likely remain customers much longer. (Plus, eliminating the need to re-authenticate in separate channels can reduce call volumes by 20% without adding support staff.)

Providing an avenue for bank employees to meaningfully and contextually engage with customers inside the digital channel extends and magnifies community institutions’ proven differentiator. It also bridges the traditional gap between branch and digital strategies, creating a more fulfilling experience.

During the anxious and uncertain times that we are facing, the power of personal service becomes even more evident. Community institutions must get creative with the tools provided not only to customers, but to bank staff as well. Superior digital experiences will allow bankers to seamlessly respond when ordinary customer needs suddenly become urgent.

Even though we are all diligently practicing social distancing and staying apart, the only way to persevere is through community. It’s time for community banks to do what they do best: provide outstanding service to their customers.

Bryan McCarty is a digital strategist at Jack Henry & Associates, a technology solutions provider for the financial services industry.