Navigating Now: How Banking is Charting Its COVID Course

An update on what’s happening in financial services now and a checklist for meeting the moment – from the brand to branch

When the pandemic took hold in early spring, most Americans assumed that many of our daily activities would have gone back to “normal” by the end of the summer. As schools and retail across the country continue to grapple with how to safely reopen, it’s clear that resuming brand and branch operations looks different depending on where you are. Virus hotspots and varying local controls have many brands struggling to come up with central policies and procedures to apply across their organizations. In fact, location continues to be the top obstacle for national brands, especially in banking, which as an essential service did not ever fully close, but rather, scaled its operations instead.

Current State

As financial services navigate post-COVID readiness, looking around the industry, we’re still witnessing different strategies to ensure branches are ready to reopen. For example, BBVA is deploying their data-based scoring models that assess internal operations and external factors like state, county, and city virus caseload to determine when it’s safe to reopen. This approach relies on transparent, updated, and accurate data for viability. Further, reopening isn’t a one-way door: Like many COVID-related situations, it’s highly changeable month to month – even week to week. Continual assessment – both internally and externally – of on-the-ground conditions is critical for ensuring consistently safe operations. In fact, changing local conditions are exactly the reason Citibank pulled back on its plans for staff return in 13 states July.

Shifting Communications

Instead of resuming full operations, most bank branches are taking a conservative, layered approach to reopening and leveraging all of their communications channels to direct customers to utilize support staff and appointment banking until their branches are back to full operation. To be effective, communications messaging must be on-brand, overt, and current, providing needed information and resources to customers about what is happening and what they can do. Most brand communications are rightly focusing on practical issues impacting the customer journey, moving from a general “We’re here for you” to more specific messages around how to best access banking services. Further, many operational challenges in the early COVID pivot, like handwritten closed signs and non-functional ATMs, have smoothed in the last several months.

Leveraging Existing Channels

Continually updating outward-facing brand communications about current-state operations and capacity is central to financial services meeting the moment and beyond. BMO Harris Bank is an especially good example of communications, putting the last updated date directly on the top of their COVID page. This practice reassures customers they’re getting the latest information and drives internal accountability for continual assessment. KeyBank has also adopted the same practice, with responsive communications playing an especially vital role as they opened nearly all of their branches in June. One particularly successful way of leveraging existing channels is how banks are utilizing the drive-up in novel ways.

Preparing for Change

Preparing for change across channels is another way banks are meeting the COVID challenge. While we may not know exactly what challenge is coming next, we all know that branch operations and brand influences will undoubtedly adjust. According to The Financial Brand, “Naturally the primary focus of the branch reopening decision is on customer and employee safety. But the decision and how customers react will likely be an indicator of how retail banking could look in the post-pandemic era.” One is operational (branch) and the other is reputational (brand). What will help financial brands navigate the now and prepare for what’s next is for bank leadership to continually evaluate, streamline and optimize their efforts in a continual feedback loop on both the branch and the brand side of business.

Ongoing Training

As with any situation in flux, continually training staff is imperative. Team members want to feel informed and in-tune with current policies and protocols, so they can carry them out with confidence in all of their customer interactions. This means that leadership must have considered responses to numerous scenarios – in advance of their occurrence. This is much like ongoing crisis communications planning, something that should never one-and-done. As banks reassess and reconfigure branches to respond to safety needs and recalibrate brand communication efforts, finding ways to learn and sustain new behaviors among staff will remain job #1.

Breaking it All Down

The longing for things to snap back to the way they were is evident across every industry. While we can all identify with the feeling of pandemic fatigue we discussed in our brand round-up, the recognition that COVID will be with us for the foreseeable future is encapsulated with the recent quip: “the pandemic isn’t over just because you’re over it.” So how do you ensure you’re responsive now, while you begin to prepare for what’s next? Here is our checklist of the 4-Cs to continually address:

  1. Communications Assessment

Look at what you’re doing from top-to-bottom and make sure that all of your brand communications are relevant to customers and the market right now and laddered up to a larger brand strategy. Messaging should be calibrated for the moment and continually updated.

  1. Channel Alignment

What ways do you have to communicate and reaffirm your bank’s response? Safety in the branch should lean on existing messaging vehicles – static and dynamic – and digital channels like mobile and online should be amped up to reaffirm resources available to customers.

  1. Change Management

Every organization should have a team of people spearheading the brand and branch response to changing conditions on the ground. Continual monitoring is necessary so the organization is always acting on the best data available and can develop the best go-forward strategies .

  1. Coaching Employees

Employee experience is always important but is particularly critical now. Gaining buy-in from staff is as important as safety. Since they’re the ones to implement any policy and follow through with adherence, involving staff members early and often is critical to sustaining an ongoing response. Success with new processes relies on preparation and people.

In our next feature, we will look at what’s next for retail banking with short and medium-term solutions to help begin the process of thinking toward a sustainable future on the brand and branch side. To develop strategies for brands during these challenging times, contact Adrenaline’s experts at covidready@adrenalineagency.com or (678) 412-6903. For more information on bank branch reopening in the post-COVID landscape, download the Roadmap to Reopening. If you need support preparing your staff for post-COVID branch operations, see the Frontline Staff Engagement Training series.