What Has The Pandemic Taught Credit Unions About Branching?

Senior branch managers from five credit unions share how COVID-19 challenges yielded opportunities to deepen member connections and broaden staff skills through cross-training.

 
 

The coronavirus pandemic is not over, but it has abated enough to give busy credit union executives a chance to reflect on takeaways from the experience — including on how their branch networks fared and responded.

Here, senior managers from five credit unions across the country talk about challenges met and opportunities seized. Read on to learn what’s on the horizon for brick-and-mortar, how these leaders plan to build out digital channels with an eye toward maintaining in-person service, and the important role cross-training has played in the past year.

4FRONT CREDIT UNION

Abbie Hart, Regional Manager, 4Front Credit Union

Abbie Hart became one of two regional managers for 4Front Credit Union ($742.4 million, Traverse City, MI) in 2017 after serving as a member service representative, loan officer, and branch manager prior to a 2015 merger that created the current organization.

She oversees eight of the credit union’s 15 branches and has responsibility for 39 team members.

“The 4Front branch network is composed of two regions nicknamed Green and Blue as a nod to our brand colors and identity,” she says.

Each region has branches of various sizes and locations, which Hart says has eliminated silos and territorial challenges that frequently complicate mergers.

The pandemic forced the closure of lobby service on March 23, 2020, for approximately eight weeks.

What challenges have your members have faced through the pandemic? How is your branch network addressing those challenges?

Abbie Hart: To say 4Front had to adopt an aggressive pivot with our service delivery model would be an understatement. During the initial 60 days of the pandemic, we dedicated lobby staff to our VideoTeller ITMs and our communications center, allowing our members to benefit from alternate channels.

We’ve now deployed VideoTeller through the entire branch network, which allows members to engage face-to-face with 4Front team members for an array of services from the safety of their own vehicle.

What has been the biggest opportunity in managing a branch network through the pandemic? How are you leveraging it?

AH: The opportunity to coach staff to be flexible and step into roles they might not have felt comfortable with. The necessary reallocation of team members during the pandemic has provided occasion and purpose for cross-training that might not had occurred otherwise.

Five years from now, will 4Front have the same number of branches? Fewer? More? Why?

AH: 4Front will most assuredly grow our branch network in the years to come. Our board of directors has committed to moving into additional markets where it makes sense to offer leading-edge financial solutions and ensure no one goes without basic banking support. Studies are currently underway to determine our next emerging market of focus.

ALASKA USA FCU

Todd Pearson, Regional President, Alaska USA FCU

Todd Pearson joined Alaska USA Federal Credit Union ($9.8B, Anchorage, AK) 16 months ago as regional president.

The big cooperative has a sprawling network of 69 branches, including 28 in Alaska, 22 in Washington, seven in San Bernardino County in southern California, and 12 in Arizona’s Maricopa County.

With minimal exception, all of Alaska USA’s branches remained open during the pandemic, Pearson says.

What challenges have your members have faced through the pandemic? How is your branch network addressing those challenges?

Todd Pearson: The biggest challenge that most credit unions have faced during the pandemic is the challenge of the unknown. As we all saw, the information on the pandemic seemed to change daily and people weren’t sure whether it was safe to go out for everyday activities like grocery shopping and banking.

All we could do as credit union executives was to use the resources we had available to inform employees and members that we had taken every conceivable precaution to keep them safe from the virus while still giving our members access to our services. Admittedly, branch traffic has slowed from past levels, but we have at least made ourselves available when needed.

What has been the biggest opportunity in managing a branch network through the pandemic? How are you leveraging it?

TP: The biggest opportunity we have seen at Alaska USA FCU is our ability to pivot quickly and use our vast resources as a $10 billion institution by quickly incorporating new recommended safety protocols and limiting the amount of business interruption to our membership. That enabled us to continue providing the extremely high level of service our members have become accustomed to receiving.

Five years from now, will [Alaska USA] have the same number of branches? Fewer? More? Why?

TP: Five years from now we would anticipate having more branch locations, most likely in Arizona as we strive to gain larger market share in the Southwest.

SHARONVIEW FCU

Ricky Otey, EVP/COO, Sharonview FCU

Ricky Otey joined Sharonview Federal Credit Union ($1.6B, Indian Land, SC) as chief operating officer in 2014 and added the executive vice president title in January 2019 when he became responsible for all member-facing business units as well as strategy development and execution.

Sharonview currently has 19 branches divided into three regions: Central Region (Charlotte branches, Salisbury, N.C., branch and Indian Land, S.C. branch); Eastern Region (Bladen County, Fayetteville and Wilmington, N.C., branches and Bluffton, Florence, Hilton Head Island branches in South Carolina; and Western Region (Gaston County and Shelby, N.C., branches and Greenville, Simpsonville, Spartanburg, and Greer, S.C., branches).

The suburban Charlotte-based cooperative re-opened all its branch lobbies and resumed normal operating hours on March 8, 2021, with some limitations on the number of members allowed inside based on the size of the branch.

What challenges have your members have faced through the pandemic? How is your branch network addressing those challenges?

Ricky Otey: Our members had to adapt to an entirely new way of conducting their banking and personal finance. Our employees did, too. Early in the pandemic, we staffed up our member experience center to handle increased inbound and outbound calls.

We saw a large increase in members using remote deposit for transactions rather than in-person deposits. We installed walk-up transaction windows in branch locations that didn’t have drive-up windows. When members requested, we also set up in-person appointments and ensured we followed CDC guidelines.

I have to applaud our members and our employees for how well they adapted to sudden and drastic change.

What has been the biggest opportunity in managing a branch network through the pandemic? How are you leveraging it?

RO: Keeping the team motivated, engaged, and growing during this unsettling time has been our biggest challenge. While the branches were closed, we were still reaching out to members to meet their needs. But we had to be sensitive to the personal needs of our teammates, as well. Many were having to assist their children with remote school or care for elderly relatives and still work full-time.

We worked quickly to implement our remote-work strategy to support our team. Everyone rose to the occasion, and we all learned there are some jobs that can be done full- or part-time from home. We learned a lot in 2020 and are incorporating what we learned into new policies.

Five years from now, will [Sharonview] have the same number of branches? Fewer? More? Why?

RO: I think Sharonview will have more.

First, the pandemic has taught us consumer behavior will evolve and change, but there’s still a place for in-person service and consultation. In those moments that matter, some consumers will want to sit down face-to-face with a member service representative or loan officer. The digital channel will continue to explode at an enormous rate — but that adds to the branch experience, it doesn’t replace it.

Second, Sharonview will continue to look at attractive markets for expansion that support our desire to grow our membership base.

TRUSTONE FINANCIAL CREDIT UNION

Lisamarie Meyer, SVP/Director of Minnesota Branches, TruStone Financial Credit Union

Lisamarie Meyer joined TruStone Financial Credit Union ($3.8B, Plymouth, MN) nearly nine years ago and has been senior vice president and a director of its Minnesota branch network for more than six years.

The cooperative has three regions: one in eastern Wisconsin for the four branches in that state, one for the southern Twin Cities market and one for the northern Twin Cities in Minnesota. Meyer heads up the north region, with responsibility for 10 of the credit union’s 19 Minnesota branches.

TruStone Financial closed its lobbies from March 26 to May 18, 2020, and was one of the first in the state to reopen and remain fully open, Meyer says.

What challenges have your members have faced through the pandemic? How is your branch network addressing those challenges?

LM: The biggest challenge we’ve seen is the comfort level of our members with technology. If a member was savvy with online technology/eServices prior to the pandemic, they were more adaptable. For some members, it was very tough, frustrating, and challenging. It’s important to note our on-premises services, such as ATMs, drive-up, and night drop services, remained 100% open during the pandemic.

We definitely saw an increase in our contact center and eServices during the start of the pandemic. We pivoted by cross-training and using our front-office branch staff to help members calling into our contact center. Cross-training branch staff to back up the contact center was a win-win for the credit union and allowed us to provide best-in-class service.

What has been the biggest opportunity in managing a branch network through the pandemic? How are you leveraging it?

LM: We were fortunate to have already implemented products such as remote deposit, tap to pay cards, and a mobile wallet prior to the pandemic. That gave us the ability to drive members to those products via social platforms. Also, cross-training staff is a huge opportunity in all areas for our credit union.

Five years from now, will TruStone have the same number of branches? Fewer? More? Why?

LM: We’ll have the same or more. Brick-and-mortar branches are not going away, in my opinion. Members like to come into locations and have the personalized experience. We will more than likely have less square footage in the branches or partnerships with other retailers, for example, shared space. Members tend to come in for larger transactions and prefer to see a person to conduct their business. Some research states the upcoming generation wants more personalized delivery channels.

TOGETHER CREDIT UNION

Jennifer Moran, VP of Branch Operations, Together Credit Union

Jennifer Moran has been with Together Credit Union ($2.2B, St. Louis, MO) for 23 years, the past two-and-a-half as vice president of branch operations.

The cooperative has 27 branches — 13 in and around St. Louis and the rest spread across California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia

Moran is responsible for an operation that has three directors who oversee the branches — divided by number, not geography — as well an operations manager and 156 branch employees.

All of Together’s branch lobbies have remained open throughout the pandemic, although it offered appointment-only visits for a while.

What challenges have your members have faced through the pandemic? How is your branch network addressing those challenges?

Jennifer Moran: I believe the biggest challenge for our members was the fear of the unknown. As the credit union and our membership navigated the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched several relief options for our personal and business members and provided financial counseling through our partners, GreenPath Financial Wellness.

We also launched an online appointment tool so members didn’t have to wait at the branch, and we transitioned our branches to the universal banker model, which incorporates a multifaceted approach to creating a consistent service experience for members while enhancing the skill set of branch employees.

What has been the biggest opportunity in managing a branch network through the pandemic? How are you leveraging it?

JM: We implemented many critical operational changes to ensure the health and safety of members and employees based on the specific needs of various roles or jobs.

We implemented a three-phase training model to teach our staff how to properly build member relationships during this critical time. The training includes education on products and services that might benefit our members long term.

Our transition to the universal banker model enables front-line workers to assist members quickly and efficiently and offers our staff more opportunities to grow within our organization, which is appealing to our branch employees.

Using staff in different areas throughout the credit union also became an opportunity during the pandemic. For example, due to the high demand for mortgage loans and refinancing, some of our staff supported our real estate department and thrived. A few were even hired on as full-time employees for the real estate team.

Five years from now, will Together have the same number of branches? Fewer? More? Why?

JM: We’ll have more branches, but our footprint will change. By enhancing our digital banking platforms and creating how to videos, we’ve empowered our members to switch from teller banking to self-service banking for traditional transactions.

Branches will remain an important connection to the communities we serve, providing comfort to members who enjoy having a branch nearby. However, they are becoming a hub for members and the community to come together to discuss financial wellness issues, such as debt counseling or investment advice.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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