Believe In Banking Podcast: Episode #2

In this episode, Sean and Gina discuss how using an empathy-led approach is key to living in this moment with your customers and planning for a safe branch reopening strategy.

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: This is our latest podcast for Believe in Banking. I’m Sean Keathley, president and CEO at Adrenaline.

Gina Bleedorn: And I’m Gina Bleedorn, chief experience officer at Adrenaline.

Sean Keathley: On this episode we’re going to talk about empathy led branding, as the most genuine and meaningful response to our new COVID reality.

Gina Bleedorn: And we’ll also discuss some practical solutions for banks and credit unions as they try their hardest to lead in this moment. So, Sean, it’s interesting that we’re talking about humanity and empathy, right at a moment where we’re all practicing social distancing. What are your thoughts on being human as we’re sort of apart, but together?

Sean Keathley: Well, Gina, It’s a good question. I feel like we’ve been urging banks to do that and without urging, they’ve responded in this pandemic to do just that. I think it’s a genuine response, especially the community banks. They’re really a fabric of the community and we’re seeing examples and statistically, even the community banks have processed the highest number of these PPP loans. A lot of their customers are actually first name people in businesses. And I do feel like they have authentically been empathy led and really done an amazing job, and felt like it’s an obligation to serve the communities with their responses.

Gina Bleedorn: The idea of empathy as you’re explaining it. It’s not a… certainly a new concept, it’s something that’s germane to our existence as humans, but it’s also quite often not present, the larger companies get. And of course, with all of the digital led understanding of innate human behavior, it’s in a way, big businesses way of getting towards empathy. But at the end of the day, it can’t compete with real human understanding. And interestingly, that’s what we saw with the PPP loans, while some of the large institutions were trying to get their digital systems right. Many community banks were going one-on-one to the people that depend on them. Banks under a billion in assets, ended up accounting for about one in five of the first round of PPP loans, and that same size classification of banks makes up less than 6% of the assets in the US. So that was an amazing effort that was based on human to human connection and relationships that community banks have, that some of the bigger banks do not.

Sean Keathley: It’s really been amazing and we’re starting to see a few examples of real programs that are helping real people with these banks and credit unions. And in terms of communicating, there’s really two different things. One, there’s really a commitment to really reinforce. They will not ask for information, it’s private or personal because unfortunately we’re seeing a real rise in fraud. Unfortunately, times like this create opportunity when people are distracted and desperate, it’s often their most vulnerable. And so we’re seeing this continuing theme of not worrying about over-communicating. We’re also seeing a little bit of one-on-one communication. And what I mean by that is we’re talking about in a specific community, branch managers calling their customers. And we’re not waiting for websites to work or things to be processed or they’re checking on people. And I’m not sure everyone understands. There was a great article in the journal, the banks and credit unions aren’t making a lot of money off these PPP loans.

Sean Keathley: At best, they may break even. I think they are genuinely trying to help people. And I think the communication is come in all forms, whether it is around protecting people from scams or just honestly reaching out to people to see how they can help. And we have seen now, examples of fast approvals, loan deferments, all kinds of ways to help people. We have one small client in New York state that is going to have a total of 3500 workers back paid as a result of the loans they’ve done to cover over 20 counties in suburban New York. So, Gina, I’ve talked a lot about communication and outreach to customers, but that’s not the only thing these organizations are focused on. What are some other things that are being done in terms of empathy led thinking?

Gina Bleedorn: Well, as we think in empathy, which is now kind of the hot word. It’s the word of the month. It is something we have talked about for a little while, but it just has a new resonance. And it is quite literally just thinking through every decision you make as a business, through the lens of your customer and not just a single customer, but all of them simultaneously thinking through the lens of all of the customers you serve, different personas, different demographics. And trying to put yourself in their shoes, to use the old adage. So the thing that’s on everyone’s mind right now, is how to safely reopen? And that is on the minds of every store, every retailer, every service provider, everyone, everywhere that provides service to people that require any type of face-to-face interaction. And certainly so in the banking industry.

Sean Keathley: It’s a great point. We’ve all seen how the grocery stores have behaved and certainly as part of the essential link to the whole supply chain and feeding of America. You’ve seen brave individuals at grocery stores, and we’ve seen the type of behavior they’ve displayed with PPE and distancing. And now the banks are really the next in line. We’ve talked previously about the essential nature of the business. It’s not digital only, for sure. We’ve already seen appointment-based banking for things that can’t be done virtually, safety deposit box, some appointments on consulting and other things. But now really on the bank’s mind is how to balance the safety of their team members and their customers. And that is absolutely something the financial industry is focused on at the moment.

Gina Bleedorn: As we think about what the branch environment looks like from a consumer perspective, we first have to think about what their mindset is, where are their heads at. Novantas has been doing weekly surveys of consumers regarding their attitudes and intentions towards banks and bank branches. As of the third week in May, 53% of consumers said they were either somewhat or very likely to return to bank branches. Interestingly, that has crept up the last four weeks steadily. In week three, it was about 40% and now we’re at 53%. So as time goes on, people seem to be gaining confidence that they will return to the branches. But also interestingly, the two top behaviors that are expected to occur, are depositing cash and depositing checks. Both of which of course, are able to be done alternatively through remote or digital channels, ATM’s et cetera. So this is curious… Now that is then followed by opening an account, which is great news for banks, because that means they’re intending upon either opening a new relationship or opening a new product. But why are consumers going to bank branches to deposit cash and deposit checks?

Sean Keathley: The statistics don’t surprise me. We’ve got to remember, we’re talking about human behavior and that’s not always captured with these outtakes of what everyone is thinking. And as I think about smaller organizations, community oriented credit unions, or banks. They can often tell you the names of the people coming in to cash the checks or visit them regularly. And as I think back before the pandemic, we had some branch traffic and many would scratch their head as to the specific nature of the branch traffic. Why are they coming in with paper checks? Why are they coming in to see us with a cash deposit?

Sean Keathley: We have ATM’s, we have mobile, we have online. I think the answer lies in what everyone is craving and missing and that’s human interaction. I am not convinced the post COVID branch traffic will look considerably different by market than it did before. So let’s think about why that is. I think back to something you’ve said, Gina, it is around trust, and we’ve said this, we’re talking about money and finances and people’s livelihood. It is not watching Netflix or booking a trip. And I think that’ll continue to be important and I think that is a huge opportunity for organizations to fulfill that need.

Gina Bleedorn: So yeah, whether or not we understand exactly why people are choosing to do things in person that they could do digitally. The point is they are. So what are banks and credit unions going to do to make that experience, not only reassuring but meaningful. These are in-person interactions that are becoming few and far between and their events to capitalize on, to create trust and to build trust and build relationships.

Sean Keathley: It is really important that these financial institutions have a reopening strategy and it is both important for the staff members and the teammates of the organizations, but also for those customers that are going to be visiting the locations. And we’re seeing more and more people start to really wrap their head around that next wave. As they are expected to be part of the essential workforce that is reopening.

Gina Bleedorn: As you receive customers into your branch environment. Think about the thing that matters more than anything, and that is your staff, your people. As people are entering environments that have new expectations and safety standards and behavior protocols that are not yet understood, set, ingrained or normal for anybody. People are scared, people are uncertain and they are looking for reassurance and although, absolutely safety vehicles in place, it is your staff that need to welcome your customers back into your branch environment. And not only reassure them that it’s safe to be here, but capitalize on the opportunity to engage them in conversation, to build relationships and to service them beyond the service that they came in for. As an essential business, banks are backbones of the community. That is both an opportunity and a challenge and, I guess, more than anything, a really big responsibility. They have to open up.

Gina Bleedorn: They have to be there for people, for their livelihoods. They’re not selling running shoes. Not that, that’s not important, especially now more than ever, but they are providing essential services to keep businesses, to keep families, to keep society and the economy running. So reopening with the right empathy led approach in mind is absolutely critical. So what does that mean? That means as you think about the experience a customer is going to have coming back to a bank branch. You have to think about everything going through their mind. And for the most part, it’s going to be fear, trepidation, uncertainty. And it is your job as a bank, as a bank employee, as a bank organization, to change that. To shift their mindset, to shift their emotional state into one of trust and certainty.

Sean Keathley: A lot of what makes them different are their team members. And the team members are serving the people coming into those locations. We’ve talked a lot about if someone does walk into your branch in a pre COVID environment, greet them at the door, and that has to change. You’re equally excited that a customer needs you, but the behaviors are different. And something that comes to mind, being in Atlanta and watching Chick-fil-A and seeing that franchise grow across the country, is how they use their people to make it a better experience. And we’ll see a Saturday at 12:30 in the summer, when there’s baseball tournaments and they have employees in the drive ups, under shade with technology in hand, really trying to expedite orders, move people through. And I think those are the types of things we’re going to see as people reopen physical branches, there’s going to be a different approach by branch staff.

Gina Bleedorn: Yeah. The staff behavior and all of the communications, everything about your customers experience, all the touch points have to be reframed post COVID. The whole world reframed itself, post COVID. Advertising stopped, marketing stopped, everybody pulled everything because all of a sudden, if you weren’t acknowledging the crisis occurring, you are tone deaf. So now as you reopen, needs to be present, that awareness needs to be part of your reopening strategy now more than ever. And it is the human element. It is the staff that are going to make or break that experience. We recognize that many of you are in various stages of opening. Some never really closed. Most closed to some degree and move to limited hours. Some are just coming out of that now, some will be in the near term but there is a grander reopening of society that you need to consider and aligned with. And the post COVID versus the pre COVID is the difference that we’re adjusting to.

Sean Keathley: As we look forward, we will be introducing other industry experts. And that will be a very exciting addition to the discussion. We’re going to have banks and credit unions speaking firsthand about their experiences, as well as other industry experts that are seeing things firsthand.

Gina Bleedorn: In our next episode, we’re going to address the spectrum of what will happen. Will we snap back to the way things were, where people are starving for trust verified by that human connection? Or will we jump ahead into a new bank branchless, peopleless, all digital environment, probably, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. And we’re going to explore just what that is. That answer will be dictated by what consumers want. So putting ourselves in the minds of people, is going to give us the best future predictor of what will happen next.

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,