Picture walking into a bank branch. A familiar face greets you by name before asking, “How can I help you today?” You chat for a few minutes about life, family, and what’s happening in town while you conduct your banking business.  

You’re picturing a community bank...  Six months ago.  

Relationships have always been the hallmark of community banking. But today, many branches remain closed, and in those that are open customers are greeted by masks, not faces. In today’s novel circumstances, what can community banks do to maintain their relationship leverage?  

In a word: be proactive. (Okay, two words.) 

Banking is one of the few industries left that are proverbially traditional. The pandemic forced change on nearly every business sector, but the “button-down brigade” industries like finance and law needed to jump the farthest to go from Then to Now. Overnight, working from home and flexible hours became an operational necessity rather than a “someday, maybe” perk.  

Overall, Wisconsin’s banks transitioned very well; bankers buckled down and focused on serving their customers in a time of need. “It was all hands on deck during the height of PPP processing,” said R. David Fritz, Jr., managing partner at Executive Benefits Network (EBN). “Banks didn’t need to reach out to clients because clients were reaching out to them. That’s shifted a bit now.” 

Now that we’re in the new, covidian world for the long haul, banks should apply that same level of dedication to service in new ways, rather than hope for a return to “normal.”  

Three powerful tactics for digital relationship-building: 

Don’t Be Camera-Shy 

Especially in an industry where trust is so foundational, establishing rapport with prospects and long-time customers alike is critical. With the ability to meet face-to-face constrained, banks should opt for video communication whenever possible. Julia Johnson, director of organizational performance at Wipfli LLP, says seeing who she’s meeting with has cultivated greater engagement. “Rather than a simple phone call to connect, sending a meeting invite that asks for 'camera on’ is an excellent way to be able to have a conversation that enables me to interact with clients in a more personal way,” she explained.  

Video communication “keeps the personal aspect and helps it be a more cohesive and collaborative team environment,” said Kent Musbach, senior vice president at BOK Financial Corporation. However, something is better than nothing, so if video isn’t an option, use whatever channels the bank has available—everything from webinars and conference calls to texting, chat software, and email. “Use whatever different means of communication you can,” Musbach advised. “For our clients, community banks, and their clients, the ability to stay in contact with people is critical.”  

Ask (and Answer) Questions 

Once you’ve established the channel you’ll use to maintain contact, take the opportunity to ask questions about how the bank can help. Fritz recommends proactive checking-in, which means “touching base with our customers to see how they’re doing, physically and mentally,” he explained. “We’re inquiring about the effects of the pandemic on sales and their financial health.” 

On the business development side, with customers the bank is trying to deepen relationships with, customized presentations that were once held in person can be transitioned to one-on-one webinars. At BOK, Musbach says his team has created tailored presentations for clients with specific information for that particular institution, answering questions the bank has about its unique challenges. With prospects, webinars answering questions about the economy or bank products in general can be developed and broadcast to a wider audience. The key is providing actionable, helpful information to initiate a conversation.  

Whether you’re nurturing a seedling relationship or a long-established one, a simple “how are you doing?” call can be enormously beneficial. “You can’t underestimate the value that you can create just by checking in with a customer,” said Fritz. “It’s a gesture of goodwill and strengthens the relationship tremendously. You don’t have to prepare, and it doesn’t take much time, but it’s powerful.” 

Get Personal 

Finally, the pandemic has blurred the lines between personal and professional. Whether it's with colleagues or clients, taking a video call from your kitchen or home office provides an opportunity to be vulnerable as a way to build trusts and connection. “I feel as if I am being invited into a client’s personal space when they turn cameras on, and I feel a more personal connection,” Johnson explained, saying the home background gives her perspective of who the client is and what’s important to them. For example, family pictures and vacation photos can spur conversations that lead to deeper connections over shared interests.  

The tactics above for taking a proactive approach to relationship-building in the new normal benefit everyone involved, the bank, its customers, and its employees.  

For bank customers, the transition to digital banking has been in progress for years. That means, says Johnson, banks should note which customers still visited the branch in person regularly. “Some people go into the branch to do their banking specifically for the social element,” she explained. Given all the digital access available to customers, banks should reach out to their “regulars” who still came in person as a way to demonstrate good corporate citizenship. That social interaction could be a lifeline for an otherwise-isolated individual.  

For the bank, checking in during times of stress has the dual benefit of demonstrating commitment to the customer/client and also providing the bank with information about the health of the account. “Banks can get a better handle on how their clients’ businesses are doing and whether they’ll change, positive or negative,” said Fritz. “It’s a check-in and also developing intelligence that helps project future performance.” 

For bank employees, creating the culture and infrastructure to allow for more robust client/customer communications over different mediums also creates more opportunities for staff to engage with one another. “The other piece that gets lost in the equation is how to ensure employee interaction continues,” said Musbach. Bank staff will be able to more effectively serve customers in an environment where they feel connected and protected. “As employers, you want to protect the interests of your employees, which will, by default, protect the interests of your customers,” Johnson advised.  

The most important thing for banks to remember moving forward is that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the definition of “normal” and it’s not done yet. The pandemic accelerated the trajectory of changes that were already occurring. “Normal” is now a moving target, so agility is essential for businesses to survive and individuals to thrive. “Things have changed very quickly and continue to change,” said Musbach. “You have to be relatively flexible as a banker and as an employer. This situation is going to change the work environment going forward.” 

Seitz is WBA operations manager and senior writer. 

BOK Financial Institutional Advisors is a WBA Gold Associate Member.
Wipfli LLP is a WBA Silver Associate Member.
Executive Benefits Network is a WBA Bronze Associate Member.