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Reimagining Accessibility for Banks

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The second in a series exploring the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on banks in Wisconsin.

By Hannah Flanders

As COVID restrictions continue to subside and the days of isolation have since passed (we hope), bankers and customers alike return in droves to their community banks. However, the challenges
presented by the pandemic will forever leave a lasting impact on the way banks operate.

Like most Americans, banks were forced into the confusion and chaos of the COVID-19 lockdown with little to no time to prepare. With disaster plans in place, many banks quickly turned remote, began servicing loans through drive-ups or in the parking lot, and relied on technology to stay connected to their team and customers.

The pandemic’s ongoing impact has allowed banks around the country to reassess the needs of both their customers and staff in connection to the bank and its physical or online branches.

For well over a century, brick and mortar banks have been the cornerstones of communities throughout Wisconsin. Be it for the safety and security of their money, or the personal connection associated with meeting in person, consumers across the state highly value their local, physical bank branches. However, many banks are rethinking their approach to the ‘traditional’ bank.

“[The ways in which] banks interact with clients and where employees get their work done has changed,” says Laurie Richards, vice president and partner at LERDAHL, a workplace interiors company and WBA Associate Member. “Bank branches are remodeling their locations to accommodate a wider variety of expectations that have emerged over the last two years as competition increases for clients and employees.”

A key component of embracing post-pandemic life for Americans around the country has been implementing the lessons learned — and this is certainly no different for Wisconsin bankers. As new branches — including Capitol Bank on Madison’s east side and Farmers and Merchants State Bank in Lake Mills — pop up around the state, new challenges arise as to how banks reimagine themselves in their communities.

As the pandemic proved, accessible banking is the most important factor to both banks and consumers. “Horicon Bank has a renewed commitment to innovate the way we help our customers. The needs of our customers are changing — and in 2020 they changed rapidly,” says Grace Bruins, marketing officer at Horicon Bank. “We’ve had to take a look at the things that make us unique — personal service, community commitment — and find a way to offer that in a digital environment as well as a physical one.”

Throughout Wisconsin, community banks envision new ways of exceeding the expectations of their customers. “Our plan is to continue to invest in our people and technology to help the bank grow and be successful,” says Prevail Bank President Nathan Quinnell. Many banks throughout the state have made upgrades such as e-signatures, ITMs, and online chat functionality for customers — Prevail Bank also hopes to upgrade their online mortgage process, add online account opening functionality, and sustain remote employees.

While many banks offered remote options during lockdown, many Wisconsin bankers have returned with full force to their branches and remote employment is considered on a case-by-case basis. Finding ways to leverage technology and space within the office is not only critical to staying relevant to customers in a world with increasing interest in digital banking, but to finding and retaining talent in a competitive job market.

“As we are in the relationship business, in addition to valuing our customers, we value the presence and safety of our employees,” says Capitol Bank President and CEO Ken Thompson. With insight from having successfully navigated the challenges created by the pandemic, Thompson understands the value this new space adds for both his customers and employees.

The combination of private office locations balanced with the increasing need for open, conference-style spaces planned for the new Capitol Bank location highlights a shift from individual to collaborative work and supports the idea that the type of task, privacy, and level of collaboration required is flexible throughout the day. With the assistance of technology, bankers are now able to maintain the office environment and culture as well as offer support to branches across towns, cities, or the state.

“As well as providing legendary customer service, embracing future technology is an important aspect of nurturing our current and future customer relations,” says William Campbell, Farmers and Merchants State Bank president and CEO.

“As we transition into our new Lake Mills branch, offering secluded spaces where customers can meet with Lake Mills staff as well as virtually meet with Waterloo and Marshall team members, will not only allow for an easier transition but offer our customers a variety of services,” adds William Hogan, Farmers and Merchants State Bank CFO.

In reimagining accessibility, bankers have considered new ways customers are able to interact with bankers — via the drive-up, ITMs, and through their digital branches — and explored elevating
existing offerings.

“Since the pandemic started, [Horicon Bank] believes there are more customers looking for digital banking services,” says Horicon’s CFO Robert Traylor. Whether it be mobile banking or the desire to digitalize services already offered at the bank — there is no doubt to bankers that the use of technology in some capacity offers customers a greater personalized banking experience and, in the case of online banking, allows their money and other banking services to become accessible to customers no matter where they are.

Accessibility, be it of the physical branch or the online services, continues to be amplified by the days of COVID-19. In understanding the need for both brick and mortar and virtual banking practices as well as approaches to combine the two, Wisconsin bankers hit their stride and continue their growth looking beyond the pandemic.

Community banking is, and always has been, concerned with the relationship built between the banker and the customer. Providing safe and productive spaces — both in-person and online — that offer the relevant tools and foster growth for both the employees and clients, is ultimately beneficial to the success of any community bank.