Whitney Bartelli is president of Bank Midwest and executive vice president and chief marketing officer of NBH Bank. Patrick Sobers is president of Community Banks of Colorado and executive vice president for business and consumer banking at NBH Bank. Opinions expressed are authors' own.
Reactions to the spreading coronavirus threat have sent markets tumbling and put public health and elected officials on high alert. With alarming headlines filling our screens every day, it can feel like there's no bottom to the bad news.
The good news, if you can call it that, is the financial system is far more solid than it was before the 2008 crisis.
Still, coronavirus is a serious external threat that is likely to keep markets volatile for a while, which raises the chances of a global recession. It's also likely to put stress on some parts of the financial system and reveal weak points that may have otherwise remained hidden.
In the interest of caution against physical contact, local banks need to double down on what they know — and do — best: use their strong personal knowledge of their customers to demonstrate true value in the face of this volatility.
Time to reassure customers
Customers are understandably anxious and want to know that they can continue to bank smoothly online as physical contact and public meetings become more restricted.
As people's jobs and small businesses are affected by disruption to travel, canceled conference events and decreased traffic at stores, they’ll want to feel assured that their bank can support them regarding loan planning and repayments.
At a time like this, people's first concern will be whether their money is safe. The answer is yes, if your money is at a financial institution that is FDIC insured and is well-capitalized.
The U.S. banking system offers the safety and soundness that many desire in times of uncertainty. Some banks are better positioned to withstand market volatility than others, so it’s wise to make sure you know the financial position of your bank.
The flip side of the current turmoil is that it's pushed mortgage rates to record lows, creating a fantastic opportunity for people to refinance their homes.
But here, too, it's valuable to have a solid bank with an emphasis in personalized customer relationships. These types of institutions will offer advice based on your long-term interests rather than a loan factory that doesn’t take your personal circumstances and goals into account. Refinancings come with significant upfront costs, which means they may not be the right choice for everyone.
Stand out from fintechs
This kind of "black swan" scenario could be a big test for fintech companies that have sprung up over the past decade and have yet to go through truly hard times.
Businesses will be desperately trying to keep operating. If you're a small-business owner seeking a loan, you’ll be better served by a bank that knows your circumstances and is looking out for your best interests, even if that might mean saying no sometimes. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is also evaluating relief programs and will partner with banks and small businesses to provide support.
Fintech firms, which often hand out loans at high volume with a minimum of due diligence, are in for a stress test. Their model can lead to businesses receiving loans they shouldn't be getting and that can cause problems down the road for them and their borrowers.
A bank that has a more intimate understanding of its individual customers can evaluate the likely business impact of an event like coronavirus and come up with suitable alternative options. In the midst of a public health crisis, we need banking that is socially responsible rather than focused solely on hitting loan issuance targets.
Be sure to cover the basics
The safety and health of customers and employees should be the top priority of every institution, and that may mean limiting access to lobbies.
Most financial institutions by now have basics such as bill pay, remote check deposits, drive-up operations and ATMs that do more than dispense cash. But the quality and capabilities of the online experience is widely variable.
This can present a vulnerability for seniors who have been slower to adopt mobile and online banking and who are also the most at risk from coronavirus.
A 2016 study by the Federal Reserve found 18% of seniors use mobile banking services, compared with 67% of millennials. Banks should be taking extra steps to educate and assist their senior customers on how to use the digital tools they need, if they haven't done so.
The value of the personal touch also applies to customers who are anxious about their ability to repay debt in a weaker economy. With a fintech firm or larger national bank, the options for speaking to a human could be limited to a call center employee in the Philippines or India, if at all.
The personal touch doesn't necessarily mean face-to-face contact. As in-person meetings and gatherings become less frequent in the coming months, the best banks will still take extra steps and use different communication tools to deal with customer concerns and help them cope with the changing world.
The coronavirus promises to be a test of banks’ progress in putting in place digital services that customers have been demanding and that reduce the need for physical interactions.
Customer service and sensitivity will distinguish community banks at this critical moment.