Believe in Banking Podcast: What We’re Learning from COVID

In this episode of the Believe in Banking podcast, Sean and Gina discuss how COVID-19 has served as low tide, exposing whether a bank’s fundamental elements – like the brand and branch network – are up to the challenge. They take a listener question about how he can help his community bank and discuss banking’s openness to change in this moment. Sharing success stories, they discuss banks leveraging their spheres of influence and remaining focused on customer-centric experiences, even as the industry prioritizes efficiency.

Text Transcript

Intro: This is Believe in Banking: a podcast series for decision makers, influencers, and leaders, featuring experts taking on the financial industry’s most pressing issues with insight and empathy. The podcast features information and conversations designed to enlighten and empower. Here are your Believe in Banking hosts, Sean Keathley and Gina Bleedorn.

Sean Keathley: Welcome. This is our Believe in Banking podcast. I am Sean Keathley, President and CEO Adrenaline.

Gina Bleedorn: I’m Gina Bleedorn, Chief Experience Officer at Adrenaline.

Sean Keathley: Gina, it was really great with Brad Tidwell, the CEO at VeraBank in the last two episodes. I’m sure you agree with me that he was just a fabulous guest and really illuminating some of the things going on in community banking today, and was a lot of fun talking to Brad.

Gina Bleedorn: Brad is such a salt of the earth human being as is. I think the thing that he represents at VeraBank, they have such a practical and genuine view of the world, and hearing him talk about what is happening through his eyes was illuminating.

Sean Keathley: I think we keep seeing these examples of banks that finished last year and entered a year of 2020 they certainly did not see it coming. But the DNA of the organization and the type of culture they’ve built, the people they are, not just at the top at the CEO, but throughout the organization, is proving to be a critical way to survive this pandemic and help those communities in need.

Gina Bleedorn: Yeah. I think along those lines, the same way the pandemic is the catalyst as we have said for change in so many ways in speeding up things that were happening already with consumer preferences and banking, et cetera, it’s also a catalyst of innovation forcing that is in some ways exposing layers of various organizations and various industries that weren’t to the level they could have been or should have been. And on the flip side, those that had put already things in place like VeraBank had done in knowing who they are, establishing their relationships and their people, like many community banks have done, but those who have done it the best are now in the best position. So in a way, COVID is forcing a lot of skeletons out of closets, and that is causing everyone great challenges. But some more than others, based on where they were when the pandemic started.

Sean Keathley: I think of the analogy of it, it’s a low tide right now, and that does expose a lot of things. And with our guests, the last two episodes, I think what it has exposed is exciting.

Gina Bleedorn: You always like to simplify what I say with analogies, so yeah, low tide, that’s what I meant.

Sean Keathley: Yeah. I’m good at that. Your ideas, and then I come up with a better analogy. We got a question, we’ve seen a lot of interaction on Twitter, it’s been fun. But I’ve picked one because it’s my favorite of the questions we received. Dalton Martin asks, working for a small community bank as a credit analyst, as a young banker in a junior employee, what can I do to help my company succeed, and where should my focus be as a new junior employee? Coming off of the interviews with Brad, what advice, Gina, would you give Dalton?

Gina Bleedorn: Dalton, two things; first, do not be intimidated by your experience level. I think today in industries across our country, across the world, because of the vast uncertainties, organizations are open to new ideas, fresh ideas, and they are willing to change mostly because they know they have to. But number two, to really answer your question, how do you really make your organization successful, I would say it is thinking of every decision you make through the lens of the customer you are trying to serve. I know that that’s easy to say, especially when it comes to competing with big banks on technology. Brad Tidwell said they’re fast followers, that’s how they approach innovation. I think that’s a really good general benchmark for what you should try to do, but if you are at least thinking through every decision through the eyes of the customer, what is best for them, what is helping them achieve financial success, either more conveniently, or with better rates, or fewer fees, or better service, whatever that might be in providing real value, that is at least the right place to start from.

Sean Keathley: I totally agree. I think it’s great advice, and it really helps us bridge to our next guest, which is going to have a very similar theme in terms of what you’re saying, Gina. We’re going to be talking to Jimmy Stead, Chief Consumer Banking Officer at Frost Bank, and he is running the consumer banking department. He also manages IT, so an incredibly important job at a $32 billion bank. I hear him saying things very similar to what you’re saying to Dalton. It’s this notion of using local talent in the markets, having a relationship strategy, people helping people.

Gina Bleedorn: Yeah. Well, there’s a general trend, I think, happening in banking, but across industries right now, which is receptivity to change. So in a way, I think many organizations, albeit the guards are up to some degree to be ready to weather an economic storm of turbulence that we’re not sure of the magnitude of yet. There is also, because of all the uncertainty that has been among us, a desire for new thinking. Now is the time where I think finally some of the bankers that held out thinking, but my brand isn’t like those big brands, and I have local relationships, and that’s my brand. My bankers are my brand. Of course, those are part of it, but your brand is bigger than that, however big or small you are.

Sean Keathley: Well, I think anyone that’s growth minded or progressive is evaluating their brand and their brand story. Many are leading to updating their brand if they have a naming problem or the brand doesn’t fulfill who they are, many others are better telling the story of their existing brand. In all cases, it has to do with everything we’ve been talking about. We’ve got another good client who just opened a new location, and as you walk in, you see a beautiful feature wall. It says, we are committed to expressing gratitude to our customers, striving for strong communications, always doing what we say, being involved in our community and exceeding expectations. What I like about that is they believe that and they can do it. And so, that’s an example of this really going all the way up from the top three or four banks, down to a true community bank, telling their story and making a promise to every single customer.

Gina Bleedorn: That is really your sphere of influence. So, whether your sphere of influence is the country or the world or one tiny town in Indiana, it is the world of people you can affect; your shareholders, your employees, your customers, and your communities. So, think about your brand in context of your sphere, what can you do within that landscape to affect those audiences in a way that you can affect them? What can you actually do? What is in your business purview to do? That is your sphere of real influence.

Sean Keathley: I think these community banks, these super community banks, these credit unions, they’re doing an incredible job of not treating people like a number, but treating them like a person or a business. I am so excited on the heels of talking to Brad and getting these questions on Twitter to be introducing Jimmy Stead at Frost Bank. Just 2020, the year in general has been so unusual and challenging, on top of that, we’ve just been through a major election, and the clear picture is just starting to form, but we’re not there yet. And so, this has just been a year of uncertainty on so many levels, and it is my hope and belief that as we move forward, we will start to solve some of these challenges and the picture will become clearer, and that’s going to be even more important for the banking system to continue to play their role as to helping the consumer get back on their feet, helping the small businesses, and we’re all cheering for a fabulous New Year’s eve and an amazing 2021.

Gina Bleedorn: Yeah. With all the uncertainty, we have learned some things in 2020, at least I hope so. I think we have. One of those things is that relationships do matter, especially in banking, the local real person connection that transcended technology, even through masks and through glass windows to keep people and businesses financially sound, that was a real thing that happened. But number two, digital remote servicing is another thing that happened, and that’s going to continue to happen, and that of course, was already present, but is becoming an even greater need. So, how do you pursue both of those things? And you have to. You have to. Capitalize on the relationships, the people and the core of what made you who you are, but absolutely, start to bridge digital with that physical as best you can.

Sean Keathley: At the end of the day, whether we’re talking to Ryan at Origin Bank, Brad, CEO at VeraBank, or a chief consumer banking officer, Jimmy Stead at a $32 billion Frost Bank, and even when we give Dalton, our young analyst advice, one thing is around having the customer and really the core focus on their wellbeing. I think in these times where efficiency is a key word, we will hear over and over again, looking through the lens of what’s best for the customer, but in ways that also create efficiency, become things that you have to elevate on your to-do lists very quickly. Things that create experience are also high value, things that only save money, but degrade the experience have to be thought through carefully before being executed. I think those are a simple set of filters to think about that can help people balance, which is another key word as we go through focus on the consumer, but also making sure we are doing things to make sure we survive these challenging times.

Gina Bleedorn: Well, what is most interesting to me hearing Brad talk and hearing Jimmy talk about these two different banks, one being 10 times the size of the other is there is actually a lot of commonality between these two banks, one at nearly 3 billion in VeraBank and Frost at like 33 billion, 10 times the size. They share common challenges, but at a different scale, there are different approaches to solving those challenges, and Jimmy, in his role, is at the heart of that. One of the things Jimmy talks about that I like is thinking of the branch as the focal point, the personal focal point of a customer experience and connecting with the customers, and that is what Frost did before, is doing now and will continue to do in the future. So as we talk with Jimmy, we’ll talk about what that means from the physical to its extension into digital. You’ll hear all of that in our next episode.

Outro: You’ve been listening to believe in banking, a podcast series created to empower decision makers, influencers, and industry leaders in financial services. Be sure to also join us on our flagship site,