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Banking sector works to balance coronavirus, business

Staff Report //November 24, 2020//

Banking sector works to balance coronavirus, business

Staff Report //November 24, 2020//

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By Teri Errico Griffis and Alexandria Ng

When the Paycheck Protection Program became available, loan officers at S.C. Federal Credit Union found themselves logging into the Small Business Administration website at 3 a.m. and on Sunday afternoons to process loans.

This pivot in operational strategy was the best they could do to avoid national web traffic as droves of small business owners flocked to banks and credit unions for support. Financial institutions like these were getting thousands of applications a day.

“It was the sheer volume — the program was being heavily utilized across the entire country, and that was the only time the volume dropped down to where we could log in and input our members’ application data,” said Scott Woods, president and CEO of S.C. Federal Credit Union. “We had to get very creative in getting our members’ information in the system and getting the loans generated.”

Across the country, financial institutions shifted their services to help struggling businesses and individuals. Like many others reevaluating their strengths, emphasis was placed on outreach and the digital sphere.

According to a study by Washington, D.C.-based Callahan & Associates, S.C. Federal Credit Union, headquartered in North Charleston, was the leading credit union in the state for number of PPP loans funded. In total, they lent more than $10 million.

Woods credits the success to the fact that they could easily pick up new loans as a certified small business lender and because of the technology infrastructure they had already built over the years.

“The technology development was from a competitive point of view — we just wanted to have the best that was out there to meet the members’ needs,” Woods said. “But we had no idea that we were actually fortifying for a cultural shift that would demand remote banking in all aspects.”
This shift to digital was seen in the 22% increase in online banking year over year, Woods said. This was the first year that they had seen 100,000 visits to their website every month.

From February to March, mobile app downloads increased by 225%, and mobile deposits went up 20% year over year. The number of mobile bill payments increased as well.

Across the country, national banks were seeing similar trends.

Based in San Francisco, Calif., Wells Fargo saw its mobile deposit volume shoot up 108.3% in the second quarter compared to 2019. Wire transactions were also up 49.6% year over year.

Jim Lawrence, Wells Fargo’s region bank president for eastern South Carolina who has been with the firm for more than 25 years, said the coronavirus’ impact on the bank has been twofold with shifts for both clients and employees.

“For clients, we had to make sure that they’re both safe and have the services they need in order to keep moving on with their daily lives,” Lawrence said. The latter sparked the uptick in online banking.

Year-over-year, digital logins for online banking were up 21% for Wells Fargo in quarter two, more than 80% of which were on mobile devices for a total of 1.5 billion logins. Additionally, 31.7 million checks were deposited using mobile devices.

Wells Fargo, founded in 1852, also made adjustments to its branch operations, with only four in the region completely closing. The others are opening in one of three phases: drive-thru only, drive-thru and lobby entry by appointment only, and then controlled access. During Phase III, customers can enter branches to perform transactions, but employees will monitor door traffic and enforce social distancing and other CDC guidelines.

“It was obvious early on that we had to do a lot of research to create an environment that people can feel safe in,” Lawrence said.
Since then, Wells Fargo has installed sneeze shields, barriers and hand sanitizer stations at all locations, and is asking customers in South Carolina, as well as employees, to wear masks.

According to an Ipsos study, these strides toward health and safety practices earned Wells Fargo a rating as the top-performing brand in the financial services industry for COVID-19 safety.

Flexibility is key

While most of the banking industry is a face-to-face role, Lawrence said that across the enterprise, Wells Fargo transitioned a large number of team members to work from home.

“In fact, some of our branch team members, we actually reassigned on temporary work shifts if they were considered high-risk and couldn’t come into a branch to work, but still wanted to help customers,” he said. “We cross-trained them to maybe help with handling customer complaints or work on phone banks.”

Similarly, S.C. Federal Credit Union repositioned part of its staff to work remotely with the call center. There have been no layoffs, rather a rotating system where only a portion of employees work in-person each week. 

Flexibility is key in accommodating staff members’ home lives when working remotely, Woods said, but he wanted to ensure that job security was not an issue.

While S.C. Federal lobbies are now open with safety protocols in place, branches experimented with temporary shutdowns and opening drive-thrus and lobbies the past few months. However, Woods said he views the plans not as inconsistent, but rather, responsive, according to how the pandemic is affecting different markets across the state. 

Part of that responsiveness is keeping in communication with members about expanded remote services, Wood said.

Members are updated through texts and emails, and through the “Coronavirus Updates” tab on the credit union’s website. There, members can learn about financial center operations, online banking and specific assistance for those affected by the pandemic. Such services include support for mortgage payment deferrals, stimulus checks, health insurance, and loan forbearance and extensions, a service which Woods said he has seen an increase in demand for.

Wells Fargo also has assisted clients by waiving fees, deferring payments and helping with loans. For clients without access to computers, banking staff educated those with smartphones about mobile banking.

“That has been one of our biggest resources. We have customers who’ve never utilized those mobile services before and are now opening up to it out of necessity more than ever before,” Lawrence said. 

With fewer people coming into the physical offices, Wells Fargo branches have proactively increased outreach to clients, and Lawrence said it’s these complex conversations that will sustain the need for banks even as mobile banking becomes more popular.

Looking back, both he and Woods believe the pandemic has proven to be a learning experience for banking institutions, highlighting the need for a more nimble framework in the future.

“People have gotten more used to using online banking, mobile banking, and we’ll see people continue to incorporate that into their banking habits,” Woods said. “We’re going to see more remote operating workforces, but we’re going to lean on this going forward in ensuring that our workforce knows that they have a great place to work and that gives them the tools, the training and the authority to take care of our members wherever they are.”

Reach digital editor Alexandria Ng at 843-849-3124.