Jeff Rose believes there’s no rush to reopen his bank’s branches.
Davenport, Iowa-based AmBank Holdings’ eight branch lobbies have been closed since March, limiting physical interactions to drive-thru lanes and by appointment. Even then, the $373 million bank is exercising caution — customers who schedule appointments have to complete a questionnaire, have their temperature taken by an American Bank & Trust employee, wear a mask and socially distance.
“A lot of banks in our area did reopen their lobbies [around] mid-June,” says Rose, the bank’s CEO. “Many of those are now reclosing, some of them because of the spike in the virus.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced banks and other businesses to change their operations to remain open. But while the health crisis underlying the economic downturn may be temporary, it offers banks an opportunity to rethink the role of the branch in serving the customer.
For some financial institutions, Covid-19 has merely accelerated this shift.
Bank OZK, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, doesn’t focus singularly on branch strategy, explains Carmen McClennon, chief retail banking officer of the $26 billion bank. Instead, OZK considers how the combination of its digital, ATM, call center and branch channels can build a high-quality client experience. Its lobbies have remained open during the pandemic, but social distancing measures still limit in-person connection.
“The reality is, we’re not face-to-face and having that critical contact with our clients on such a regular basis,” she adds. “What worries me is I’ve got to think about what we’re doing in these other channels so we’re at the top of the consideration when our client has their next financial need.”
An analysis of consumer traffic trends by the advisory firm Novantas finds weekly branch visits down by 20% as of July 14, since the pre-pandemic period of Jan. 30 through Mar. 4, 2020. An earlier survey found branch activity unlikely to recover, with only 40% of consumers saying they’d return to their local branch once the pandemic abates.
Separately, Fidelity National Information Services (FIS) reported that new mobile banking registrations increased by 200% in April, and mobile banking activity rose by 85%.
McClennon believes that personalization across channels will be important. “We’re looking at things like smart offers when they’re logging in to pay a bill,” she explains. Also, “how do we personalize an ATM experience so we’re maintaining that relationship with our client? I think we’ve got to challenge ourselves [to do that].”
OZK plans to unveil mobile app enhancements soon, and will thoroughly train branch and call center staff on its features. “We want them to confidently promote it” to clients, says McClennon.
Covid-19 doesn’t appear to be driving OZK to close locations. These decisions will be made by branch and by market, McClennon explains, based on OZK’s ability to serve its clients and meet its strategic objectives.
It recently sold four branches — two each in South Carolina and Alabama. “Candidly, we didn’t have enough density to deliver a strong client experience. That’s really challenging in a low-density market,” says McClennon. But she points out that the bank opened as many branches as it closed — three — in 2019.
Rose says AmBank will soon field surveys to better understand customer preferences and help the bank’s leadership team plot a path forward. While drive-thru transactions have risen 10% over the past couple of months — which Rose partially attributes to the warmer weather — mobile and online usage are back to pre-pandemic levels.
Data will drive AmBank’s reopening plans, but Rose believes that some lobbies will remain closed in less-frequented locations where customers have adapted to drive-up service.
When its lobbies reopen, Rose believes it will be a rare opportunity to change how customers interact with his bank. AmBank has invested in new technology, including DocuSign and improved payment capabilities; they’re also looking at self-service technology, like interactive teller machines. Rose is inspired by Apple’s stores and the hair salon chain Great Clips, which let customers schedule service appointments digitally.
“We’ve got one shot at modifying the client experience for the betterment of our customer,” he says. “We love our customers, we want to see them, but if they can self-serve and not have to drive to the bank, it’s going to be a better experience for them overall. How do we take advantage of the pandemic situation to permanently upgrade the client experience?”