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The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has impacted everyone, and many feel overwhelmed by pandemic-induced stress, income instability and the prospect of an uncertain economic recovery. Like other industries, financial institutions must be sensitive to circumstances and avoid commercialized messaging: Rather than make sales pitches, they should focus on being trusted resources customers can count on to help them navigate difficult waters. Here are ways FIs can reach out and help people by cutting through the noise and solving real-life problems.

Understanding customer needs

There’s no doubt COVID-19 has made life difficult for many people. If banks and credit unions are to make truly meaningful connections with customers, they need to start by understanding customer needs.

For example, many entrepreneurs are grappling with the survival of their small businesses. Others are worried about keeping their jobs and protecting their families’ livelihoods. The need for financial security is an overarching theme, and one FIs are uniquely positioned to address.

“People are worried about all of the things that we’re worried about,” said Zach Gabelhouse, Director of Client Strategy for Deluxe Corporation. “Financial security, the small business economy, and nationwide unemployment. People are looking for ways to get financial help, such as loan forbearance and getting relief on loan payments. They want to make sure their investments are safe, or as safe as they can be, and they want to make sure they have access to their funds.”

Financial institutions, then, should think about what their customers need and how they can help them survive difficult times; FI messaging should adopt an empathetic tone to convey the idea that bankers are trusted advisors.

At the same time, FIs should recognize that some customer segments are actively seeking growth opportunities – specifically, those who wish to take advantage of low rates for home purchases and refinancing.

Whether customers are in survival or growth mode, banks can foster trust by catering to their specific situations. That starts with understanding exactly what customers need and then reaching out to deliver targeted messages that illustrate how FIs can help customers achieve their goals.

How to connect with overwhelmed customers

The first thing banks must recognize is that the onus is on them to reach out to customers in need, not the other way around. Today’s environment means effective communication goes beyond email; it challenges FIs to explore channels that make it easy for customers to take advantage of banking resources.

Digital facilitation

In the absence of face-to-face meetings, digital platforms offer powerful alternatives that facilitate communication between banks and customers.

“A big change is that bank branches have closed and consumers are looking for a way to interact with their bank. The norm is gone, right now, in terms of being able to go to the bank, talk to a banker, transact and open accounts, so we’re looking to try to help bridge the gap in this time of need,” said Gabelhouse. “Banks are not used to this situation, customers are not used to this situation, and more than anything we’re looking to try to find a way that consumers can interact with their bank.”

Appointment scheduling software

One approach that bridges that gap is online appointment scheduling software, which allows customers to book appointments with bankers from the comfort of their own homes.

Scheduling software doesn’t require significant investment in time or development. In fact, Deluxe’s solution can be deployed in 24 hours and yield immediate results: after its inaugural launch, one bank booked its first appointment within 90 seconds and continued to book new appointments every 12 minutes thereafter. It was even able to automatically schedule appointments overnight, when banks are traditionally closed. Integration only requires a simple link or button added to an FI’s website.

“For banks that don’t have a means to quickly and easily communicate with their customers, we wanted to get in front of that and help customers through a scheduling portal,” said Gabelhouse. “Customers can reach out and get help dealing with account issues, transaction issues or just ask questions about what’s going on and gain some sense of stability. We wanted to be able to open that channel of communication between the bank and their customers, and that’s where we came about with this communication scheduling tool where customers can go and direct a particular call out to their branch of choice, raise their hand and ask for help. That’s one big piece of the solve in terms of the new interaction model between consumers and bankers.”

Remote deposit capture

Existing technologies such as remote deposit capture can also help banks cater to customer needs. Though remote deposit capture isn’t new to FIs, many customers have yet to adopt it; thus, it provides a new and convenient way for customers to interact with their banks from home.

“Another big change as a result of COVID, and given the at-home nature of consumers, is there’s a gap in terms of how customers can utilize their accounts. There may be customers not currently taking advantage of online or digital channels that their bank offers to support their financial needs,” said Gabelhouse.

Mobile deposit letter checks are a powerful way for banks to introduce remote deposit capabilities to customers. Letter checks are mailers that consist of a letter with a low-denomination check and instructions on how to deposit it through a bank’s mobile app. They offer a tangible incentive for customers to discover remote deposit capture; plus, they decrease branch traffic and increase customer confidence.

“It’s literally a letter that’s being sent with a live check that ties back to an account within the bank that is essentially free money to give customers a reason to learn about remote capture capabilities that your bank has,” said Gabelhouse. “So, if I’m the banker, and you’re the customer, I want to tell you that you don’t need to come into the branch to deposit a check. You can use online technologies that we have available to deposit your checks. It helps solve a need that customers have, given the current pandemic.”

In addition to introducing online banking capabilities, mailers can be used to help support customers in a time of financial need. For example, letter checks can be sent to remind customers they can utilize existing credit cards and Home Equity Lines of Credit.

“In those cases, we’re tying their credit card or HELOC accounts in a form of a letter check. So, we’ll say ‘don’t forget you have a $25,000 home equity line of credit with our bank. If you need some additional funds during this time, we’ve enclosed three checks you can draw off your account for any financial need you may have,’” said Gabelhouse. “It’s another example of how letter check communications are occurring today to support consumer needs given the current situation.”

Automated messaging

Many banks already use mobile messaging to introduce and educate customers about online banking platforms and mobile apps, but automation can take those efforts a step further by packaging timely information within messaging that’s sensitive to consumer situations. In short, it enables banks to deliver the right messages, to the right customers, at the right time.

By harnessing the power of artificial intelligence in banking, FIs can establish initiatives such as data-based trigger programs, where they monitor customer behavioral data so they can reach out when customers who are actively in the market for home purchases or refinancing.

“Because the rates are low and people are looking to refinance, we are working with banks to alert them when customers are searching for mortgage products, then giving banks the opportunity to share their products with their existing customer bases,” said Gabelhouse. “In that respect, we’re reaching out to customers who are interested in taking advantage of the low rate environment and giving them guidance that can get them into a product that makes the most sense.”

Automated messaging technology can also be used to reach out to businesses that are seeking lines of credit to help them survive and grow. At the same time, it can help banks avoid sending mortgage-related messages to customers who have forbearances so banks can maintain sensitivity during difficult times.

Shifts in customer acquisition and portfolio protection

Throughout the crisis, many financial institutions have continued to conduct customer acquisition campaigns, albeit with altered messaging that’s more sensitive to the current situation: Namely, a shift toward online account opening tools.

“They have more online calls to action to open accounts, so rather than coming into a bank to open a new checking account, customers can go online and open it there,” said Gabelhouse. “Banks are shifting their calls to action toward online channels.”

In addition, customers are shifting toward portfolio protection strategies, which presents an opportunity for banks to educate customers about deposit accounts and how they compare to riskier types of investments.

“Due to the economic impact, in particular of the stock market, there is a shift toward ‘safe’ deposit accounts, savings accounts, at banks,” said Gabelhouse. “Banks are reaching out to consumers to drive deposits in a less risky environment. People are making sure their investments are safe, so we’re seeing a shift toward bank deposit products versus investments, and they want to make sure they have access to their funds.”

Complimentary services and resources

Another way FIs can make meaningful connections with customers is to offer complimentary services and resources that help them keep abreast with the current climate and find the resources they need to resolve issues they’re facing due to the crisis. Banks can find inspiration in the services and resources offered by the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

For example, all three credit bureaus are offering free weekly credit reports. In addition, Experian is offering free credit monitoring to help consumers detect identity theft and fraud. Equifax is giving consumers free monthly credit scores plus easy access to freeze credit files and submit fraud alerts. TransUnion has compiled a list of credit help resources consumers can use to get assistance from government, trade, credit counseling, debt and local organizations. They also have a support center dedicated to helping customers during the pandemic. These companies understand what their customers need and have developed resources to help them find it.

Banks can follow suit by taking what they know about their customers and developing complimentary services and resources that empower them to get the help they need.

For example, banks can create loan forbearance self-help pages that make it easy for customers to apply for forbearance online. If loan forbearance policies such as interest rates and term adjustments are predetermined, the process can be quick and simple for good customers who will remain in good standing if granted temporary relief.

They can also develop rapid HELOC and business credit decision processes so valued customers can gain access to financial resources quickly – without the need to visit branches in person. Investment consulting is another complimentary service banks could offer, especially given the shift toward bank deposit funds versus stocks.

Offering complimentary services and resources is a powerful way for banks to make meaningful connections with customers; not only does it illustrate how banks are in tune with circumstances and their ability to meet customer needs, it can foster long-lasting trust that ultimately leads to improved bank revenues.

Valuable content

On-site content that helps consumers and businesses find useful information and make critical decisions likewise helps banks establish trust and presents opportunities for calls to action that lead to online banking services. Again, the three major credit bureaus are leading the way.

Experian, for example, offers an economic scenarios report that delivers insights into the credit economy and how it is impacted by COVID-19. The company has also launched its Look Ahead Webinar Series, which covers topics such as portfolio loss forecasting, fraud prevention plans and macroeconomic scenario forecasting – all valuable content for banks that can inspire similarly-potent content designed for banking customers.

The company’s Macroeconomic Jobless Risk Index Map is another example of useful content. The map utilizes data such as labor statistics, reported virus cases and leading economic indicators to display which states are most likely to see the effects of the coronavirus on a week-to-week basis.

For its part, Equifax features a coronavirus knowledge center that’s packed with consumer-friendly advice such as what they need to know about payday loans, pros and cons of cosigning, how to negotiate with debt collectors and whether refinancing mortgages affects credit scores.

TransUnion offers a variety of valuable COVID-19 resources for both businesses and consumers, starting with blog posts on topics such as how to manage credit through a financial hardship and a business hub that features webinars, resources for serving customers and mitigating risks, insightful infographics and a consumer financial hardship study.

Similarly, banks can create content that caters to their customers’ needs. Ideas include:

  • Blog posts that help specific customer segments: small business owners, customers who are dealing with income losses and customers who are interested in refinancing, for example
  • Online webinars and workshops that help customers solve current issues, protect their investments and position themselves for future success
  • Knowledge centers that help customers quickly find the coronavirus-related solutions they need, including banking services, mortgage forbearances and credit information

Customers are seeking information online, so FIs that dedicate resources to crafting valuable content that helps them get fast answers to critical questions can establish themselves as trusted authorities customers will count on when they’re ready to make important decisions.

Social media

Social media is another customer engagement channel financial institutions can explore, and it’s one that’s often underutilized by banks and credit unions. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can help banks connect with both business customers and consumers in their preferred environments, lending a sense of community to communications.

Experian, for example, holds a #CreditChatLive video chat every Friday on Facebook. During the chat, Experian Sr. Director of Consumer Education and Advocacy Rod Griffin answers credit questions and educates participants about how to use credit as a tool for achieving financial goals.

The company also holds #CreditChat Twitter chats every Tuesday. Each week, a new topic is discussed; past themes include ways to make extra money at home, how to deal with unemployment and frugal ways to enjoy summer during COVID-19.

Social media is also part of TransUnion’s strategy: the company is offering social care support options during the crisis to grant customers access to faster service. Rather than go through traditional channels, customers can ask questions on Facebook or Twitter.

Financial institutions can likewise take advantage of social platforms to enhance the customer experience. Banks and credit unions, for example, can host live chats that answer questions for specific customer segments. They can also follow TransUnion’s lead and offer support via direct messaging.

Making meaningful connections with customers overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis begins with understanding what customers need, then identifying solutions that resolve their issues. Once those are achieved, FIs need to strategically craft messaging that’s on-point, empathetic and valuable so they can position themselves as trusted financial partners. Communication doesn’t need to be hampered by the pandemic; rather, banks can view this as an opportunity to explore new ways to build meaningful relationships that ultimately lead to lifelong customer loyalty.

Toolkit: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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