Wisconsin banker Tom Pamperin says the most-welcoming method for a bank to connect with customers seems to have flipped. 

“It used to be technology was the cold and impersonal interaction,” said Pamperin, president and chief executive officer of Premier Community Bank in Marion. 

But today, amid a pandemic in which bank customers – if the bank lobby is even open – must wear a mask, remain separated from employees by plastic barriers, stand at a distance and likely are leery of touching anything, using a mobile app or a video teller has become a lot more appealing. 

“Now which service has become cold and impersonal?” Pamperin rhetorically asked. 

The invasion of the novel coronavirus early this year has changed a lot of business and consumer behaviors, ranging from how we shop to how we’re entertained to how we meet. How we bank also is on that list. 

The need for social distancing to avoid catching or spreading the virus has increased consumer acceptance of technology that some might have continued to shun as long as they could fearlessly walk into a branch and make their transactions. And it appears probable – now that more consumers and businesses have engaged with technology – many of them will keep using it even after the pandemic subsides. 

A report this summer by the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte and the Institute of International Finance said COVID-19 has been a catalyst for adoption of bank technology.  

“Looking ahead, it is abundantly clear digital transformation will not only accelerate, but financial institutions that do not fully embrace digital transformation – and adapt to new ways of working – risk being left behind,” the report stated. 

At a recent meeting of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council, the consensus among a dozen Midwest bank executives on the panel was that COVID-19 has significantly boosted the use of financial technology, said Douglas Gordon, CEO of Waterstone Financial Inc., the Wauwatosa parent company of WaterStone Bank. 

“The pandemic has really accelerated the digital platform probably by three to five years,” Gordon said. 

Among new adopters of bank technology are people opening accounts, businesses and “even senior citizens who have historically been more averse to it,” he said. 

“They (bankers on the council) think people are getting comfortable with the digital platforms,” Gordon said. “It’s probably a more profitable way to do it. Everybody is looking for cost cutting because net interest margins are slim, being in a zero-interest rate environment.” 

Brookfield-based North Shore Bank installed its first video teller unit in a Kenosha grocery store in late 2014. Today it has almost 30 at 18 locations, mostly in drive-through lanes at branches. At the video teller sites, consumers make transactions while chatting, similar to a Zoom encounter, with a specially trained banker who might be miles away.  

When the pandemic hit and people couldn’t go inside bank lobbies, use of the video tellers quickly grew. 

“All drive-up transactions, but specifically our video teller transactions, just surged,” said Sue Doyle, senior vice president and head of retail banking for North Shore Bank. 

Doyle said all electronic forms of banking, such as mobile banking and person-to-person payments, had been increasing even prior to the arrival of the new virus.  

“COVID just took that trajectory and accelerated it,” she said. 

Ergo Bank in Markesan also uses interactive teller machines, or ITMs, in its market. 

“We were seeing a steady increase month over month prior to COVID, and then when COVID hit and the lobbies got closed down, that technology just took off,” said Kyle Witt, president and CEO of Ergo Bank. 

Even though lobbies have reopened, the use of the ITM video units is up. 

“So people said, “OK, this is nicer than walking in and talking with someone. I can actually talk to someone on the screen. Everything is happening in front of me,’” Witt said. 

Video teller capability also helps the bank cope with staffing issues if one or more employees can’t come to work, Witt said. 

Pamperin said at Premier Community Bank, the mobile app has seen the most growth since the virus appeared. 

“The walking-into-the-lobby experience of a bank – I think that has permanently changed,” he said, noting that having an existing app immediately met the need of customers and didn’t require much marketing. 

“It was a coming together nicely for us to have this product that we’ve had out there for a number of years now and many people were using it,” he said. “But we had kind of plateaued in acceptance of it or new application of it by our customer base. And now it’s just exploded.” 

Paul Gores is a journalist who covered business news for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 20 years. Have a story idea? Contact him at paul.gores57@gmail.com