What do banking customers in western New York want right now? Often, it’s a human connection, according to leaders from three local community banks.
“The consumer right now is looking for that personal touch,” said Gwendolen Crawford, Canandaigua National Bank’s director of retail banking.
Crawford oversees the bank’s 25 branches. On a recent weekday morning meeting with the bank’s branch managers — a group she lauded for their passion and commitment to the communities they’re located in — Crawford reiterated the bank’s number one priority right now: being present for customers.
“More than I’ve ever seen before, customers want to see a face they recognize,” said Crawford who has been with the bank for 15 years. “They want to ask questions. They want answers to questions like, ‘How is our bank different?’
Personal connection is key
The ‘how is our bank different?’ question is typically a reaction to the failure of three U.S. bank failures (Signature Bank, Silicon Valley Bank, and Silvergate Bank) over five days in March 2023. Another financial institution — First Republic Bank, which was headquartered in California — failed on May 2, 2023.
Marty Birmingham, president and CEO of Five Star Bank, acknowledges a lot is going on in the industry and that while it’s easy to paint financial institutions with a broad brush, local community banks are very different than the banks that failed and large banks in general.
“We are serving the communities where we live and work,” Birmingham said. “We take very seriously our responsibility to be a safe harbor for our customers.”
Philip L. Pecora, president and CEO of Genesee Regional Bank has also seen more customers seeking relationships with their banks and bankers recently.
“When the first bank failures happened some of the larger banks sent out generic emails letting customers know everything was OK,” Pecora said. “We had all of our relationship managers proactively reaching out to customers by phone.”
Within the first ninety days of a new employee’s tenure at Genesee Regional Bank, Pecora meets with them one on one. Recently he met with a new employee who had spent 32 years working at one of the largest banks in the country.
“She shared how the client experience and culture of our bank was so refreshing,” Pecora said. “She really appreciated getting to know our customers personally.”
Individualized advice in demand
This increased desire for personal connections noted by Crawford, Birmingham, and Pecora, is reflected in findings from the 2023 U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction Study by J.D. Powers which was released at the end of March 2023. The report’s overarching theme: “As deposit balances and financial health levels sink, personalized advice and guidance become more important than ever.”
The study found that in-person branch visits are close to pre-pandemic levels with 38% of customers describing branches as essential. Customers under age 40 were more likely to say they expect to see their branch visits increase in the next year than customers over age 40.
Part of this increasing interest in branch visits could be due to what Crawford is seeing at Canandaigua National Bank — a recent uptick in requests from customers for in-branch appointments with financial advisors.
“We are seeing more people wanting to make sure they’re on track,” said Crawford, who also noted customers often enjoy coming into branches because they’ve built relationships with branch managers and tellers. “We empower our branch managers down to our teller lines to do what’s right for our customers. Little things mean a lot to people.”
As an example, she noted a branch sending flowers to a customer that experienced a personal loss they shared with a teller. Each branch at Canandaigua National Bank also has a community advisory board that is the eyes and ears in the community, Crawford said.
Community support matters
Crawford, Birmingham and Pecora all also note that potential and current customers are looking for financial institutions that support the community through things like team sponsorships and donations to local nonprofit organizations.
At Five Star Bank, for example, the bank is one of the sponsors of Junior Achievement of Central Upstate New York’s building of a state-of-the-art learning lab that will bring hands-on financial learning, workforce development and entrepreneurial experiences to thousands of area students.
The 18,000-square-foot facility, to be named the Paychex Junior Achievement Discovery Center, will be in Eastman Business Park’s Kodak Center. It’s expected to open in Fall 2023 and will serve 6,000 students in the first full year of operation, reaching 12,000 students annually at full capacity.
“As a local community bank sponsorships and support for local non-profits like Junior Achievement is important to us,” Birmingham said. “We understand the value consumers place on this.”
Research presented at the 2020 American Economic Association annual meeting showed that banks that donate money to nonprofits see increased profits and higher local market shares than those that do not.
Technology is a must
Technology to enhance a customer’s baking experience is now a necessity says Pecora, who says “From a community banking standpoint, tech is the must-have.” He likens a bank’s online and mobile banking platforms to another branch of the bank.
Crawford noted the pandemic introduced more consumers to online and mobile banking and it’s something that has stuck. She says at Canandaigua National Bank customers want and are provided with “all the online banking services plus that personal touch.”
At Five Star Bank one of the newer technologies they’ve rolled out is interactive teller machines (ITMs) in the lobbies of some of their locations. These machines allow customers the option of video-calling local representatives of the bank to complete basic transactions.
Birmingham says the ITMs are working well and provide a hybrid experience some customers seek. “We want to empower customers to choose the banking delivery channel of their choice, whether that be in-person, online, mobile, or hybrid,” he said. “We’re committed to that balance.”
Caurie Putnam is a Rochester-area freelance writer.e