By Derwin M. Howell – Executive Director, Republic Bank Limited
Across the globe, businesses of every capacity and industry have been forced to adjust their operations and services due to the dramatic spread of Covid-19.
Many have argued that the coronavirus pandemic has been the single most devastating event in recent human history with its calamitous effect on humanity and economies. The toll in loss of lives, widescale unemployment, imploding business continuity and permanent and temporary business closures increases with each passing day.
Against this backdrop, in a period where economic downturn is inevitable, citizens of the world’s business community have answered the call for assistance and have banded together to provide aid in a time when they themselves are feeling the full force of the pandemic. Providing security to their staff and clients and implementing low-touch digital business practices have been the key focus of most businesses and, indeed, was seen as a priority for the Republic Financial Holdings Group.
Republic Financial Holdings Limited response to Covid-19
With an international footprint, Republic Financial Holdings Limited (RFHL) found itself charting a course through the pandemic’s very fluid developments by conceptualising and implementing measures to safeguard and bring financial relief to its clients, staff and the communities in which we serve. Arguably, due to this health crisis, the face of banking has been changed forever: financial requests that would have been negotiated face-to-face are now accepted electronically; simple gestures, like a handshake, are a distant memory; and institutions are operating under severe logistical constraints.
From the onset of the crisis, RFHL’s executive leadership team set about identifying and prioritising its responses to the effects of Covid-19 on staff and clients by:
- Reviewing and adapting the Group’s business continuity plans to cater for the nature of the current challenge
- Developing specific operational responses to varying scenarios based on the actions of the authorities across our operating entities
- Implementing staff rotation and remote work policies to manage exposure of staff at all locations
- Agreeing adjustments to client service operations, including opening hours, services offered, limiting client numbers in locations and enhanced cleaning regimes to ensure the health and safety of staff and clients
- Developing relief packages to provide cash flow assistance to staff and clients
- Agreeing a community-focussed response package to assist government and non-governmental organisations in responding to Covid-19
- Ensuring the continuation of good governance across the Group and full engagement of all boards of directors in managing through the crisis
- Ensuring a comprehensive communication plan to keep all stakeholders advised of operational and other changes throughout the crisis
Shrinking to keep staff and clients safe
As a means of reducing opportunity for exposure in the interests of the health and safety of our staff and clients, one of the first and boldest decisions was to manage our branch footprint. Where possible, we closed our smaller capacity branches to the public, leaving the larger, high-traffic branches open with shorter opening hours, and implemented strict crowd control measures, as a means of enabling the prescribed physical distancing.
This approach varied by territory, since, in some cases, the geographical spread of branches did not facilitate closures and, in other cases, operating hours needed to be adjusted to align with government-imposed stay-at-home orders and restrictions on the movement of people. We also took the step of adjusting the services offered in the branches to an essential subset, to restrict the numbers coming to branches. In recognition of those who were more at risk, the Group instituted a system whereby the first two hours of the day were dedicated to serving the elderly, pregnant and differently-abled clients, with them also receiving priority service outside of this period.
Push to digital, contactless service and perceptions to risk
As a means of further reducing the number of customers coming to our reduced branch network, we actively encouraged customers to use our digital channels and encouraged those who had not already done so, to sign up for our internet banking and mobile banking services. Where these sign-up processes were still dependent on a visit to the branch, we reworked the procedure to become ‘contactless’. It became evident that we would have to adjust the way we view and manage risk, since sign-up processes prior to the pandemic were perceived to mitigate a certain level of risk by the organisation. The imperative brought on by dealing with Covid-19 allowed us to look past that to solutions that were customer friendly and posed acceptable risk.
For most territories in our fold, visiting the branch has always been the mainstay of accessing banking services. With such congregation being a significant risk during this period, customers were encouraged to call or email their branches rather than physically visit them. This required adjustments, both on the part of clients and bank staff. However, thankfully, managing change was a newly acquired skill for all, and this new way quickly contributed to reduced trips to the branches.
Humanising the brand
In a time when clients were being bombarded with communication from Covid-19 hygiene measures to vital updates from government sources, a key challenge was getting our message through to clients on changes to our operations and other key messages. These had to be succinct and we also needed to change the slant of the communication from ‘use these products and services’ to ‘here is why these products and services are the right fit for you during this time’.
Besides the ‘how to’ messages that dealt with advising clients how their day-to-day banking would change under the crisis, we also thought it necessary to create a steady stream of client-banker communication to reassure clients and to signal our intention to be at their side throughout these challenging times. The Group achieved this by disseminating a series of emails to clients, signed by the executive leadership of each territory. These communication pieces ranged from highlighting measures implemented to provide security to clients, to basic reminders of the Group’s digital services, to our plans for providing cash flow relief and other concessions to loan and credit card clients.
Equally as important was regular and consistent communication with our staff. A rhythm of staff communication was established to ensure that team members were made aware of all changes as they happened. The chief executive in each territory also dispatched regular communication to staff, advising of the bank’s position on matters and steps that were being taken to protect the health, safety, and financial wellbeing of staff.
Relief to clients
With most, if not all territories going into government-mandated lockdowns of various forms, it was clear that our clients would face an unprecedented level of financial uncertainty. The Group’s executive leadership began brainstorming measures that would assist clients through the period. Supported by monetary measures by the central banks in most territories, we were able to reduce interest rates on loans and implement short-term reductions on credit card interest. We also gave concessions on merchant commissions and waived late and over-limit fees on loans and credit cards.
The most impactful measure, however, was the granting of a moratorium on principal and interest payments on all loans. Stylised as #MoratoriumsMadeEasier for easy access on social media, the moratorium was extended to all clients whose loans were in good standing. Personal and business clients were also offered temporary increases of overdraft and credit card limits. Our relationship managers interacted with the various clients and were tasked with tailoring financial alleviation packages best suited to each.
Corporate social responsibility #RepublicCares
RFHL has a proud and longstanding corporate social responsibility arm – The Power to Make a Difference Programme – that has greatly impacted the communities of each territory. In addition to partnerships with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), on 1 April 2020, the Group announced a $2million financial donation, shared collectively across all of the territories in which it operates, namely, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Guyana, Barbados, Ghana, Suriname, Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Maarten, Anguilla and Dominica.
Each territory was urged to liaise with key stakeholders in their community to determine areas of critical need in the fight against Covid-19. In many cases, the donation assisted with the purchase and provision of critical items, such as ventilators, personal protective equipment, testing kits, food and supplies for the health care workers, and other miscellaneous items. In some cases, the funding assisted NGOs with the purchase and supply of basic food items to families in need, especially those who would have lost or had a reduction in income due to stay-at-home measures.
Staff volunteerism is another key aspect of the Group’s Power To Make A Difference Programme, and, outside of the Group’s official contribution, staff in all territories banded together to provide assistance in their local communities through distribution of hampers to those in need. We remained focussed on providing a helping hand, however we could, within every community and at every level.
‘As the world continues to accept that living under the implications of Covid-19 may be the new normal for the foreseeable future, the outbreak has given momentum to the existing call for banks to amplify their digital banking practices’
Banking in the age of social media
With the Covid-19 outbreak confining the majority of the world’s population to their homes, businesses turned to social media to enhance their sales and marketing strategies, and also turned to messaging platforms to enhance service delivery.
The banking industry, traditional by nature in most of its practices, was no different and adjusted and realigned its products and services in the age of social media to fill the need for robust digital banking. The Republic Group answered that call by utilising unconventional social media platforms, like WhatsApp video call as a verification tool for online banking applications. Facebook and Instagram were used to sensitise clients about the online tools available to complete their banking – for example, credit card payments, applications and limit increases, and use of intra- and inter-bank transfers – resulting in a decline of in-branch visits. These messages were interspersed with general messages on general hygiene and social distancing measures. Social media really came to the fore in engaging clients on the details and mechanics of the moratorium on loans. This proved to be a very effective way of disseminating information but, more importantly, a way of receiving quick feedback, which guided course corrections in our communication and service approaches.
While social distancing and quarantine became the new normal for most of the world’s population, for essential staff who were required to report to work every day, their new normal quickly became trekking through the once bustling streets to report to duty to ensure essential services remained on stream. While our health care workers and first responders are the heroes of this pandemic, and rightfully so, there exists no amount of gratitude that can be extended to our banking heroes, whose priority was to see to the financial needs of our clients. Ensuring that they remained protected and comfortable during the period was the Bank’s highest priority.
To ensure social distancing requirements were adhered to and our business continuity plans remained on stream, the Group implemented a staff rotation policy wherein only 50 per cent of any work team was on duty at any time. We also encouraged those who could, to work from home. The Bank put in place mechanisms for remote meetings using the Microsoft Teams software.
With the closure of schools, employees with school-age children who could not put care arrangements in place, were offered special leave to enable them to look after their young ones.
While clients are attracted to enticing financial packages, what truly keeps a client is the frontline staff they interact with daily. For many, a bank branch’s frontline staff feels like family. As different institutions adopted varying approaches to ensure their staff remained appreciated, happy and healthy during the uncertain and dark period, like J.P. Morgan, the Republic Group provided all staff with a one-time special payment and daily stipend payments, to essential staff serving customers at branches.
Much of the benefits offered to clients, were offered to the Group’s staff complement to curb existing and impending financial hardships due to the pandemic.
With increased and thorough sanitisation efforts and infrastructural updates to include portable hand-washing stations and hand sanitisers, the Group continued to review international best practices in compliance with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure the staff’s health remained safeguarded.
The digital imperative
Life after Covid-19 remains undetermined; however, the face of banking has been changed. As the world continues to accept that living under the implications of Covid-19 may be the new normal for the foreseeable future, the outbreak has given momentum to the existing call for banks to amplify their digital banking practices. Though the need for new and improved strategies surrounding marketing and innovation in banking existed before the outbreak, in a matter of months, traditional banking has been upended and digital banking will likely be the new normal or, at least, the new expectation. Consequentially, the question of whether financial institutions will remain committed to changing the face of banking post-crisis has become the new discussion. It would be completely unfathomable for the advancements in banking to regress now that the potential has been realised.
RFHL, like most financial groups, has used the period to review and bolster digital banking practices and revisit how clients prefer to have their financial needs met – evidently, without leaving the comfort of their homes. This includes how banks use data, technology, and human resources to have a meaningful impact on marketing and the digital roll out. For example, retailers are opting for contactless payments offered by their bankers in a bid to minimise physical and cash contact.
Evidently, clients are becoming heavily dependent on digital banking channels, and are hoping their bankers can answer that call. Now that digital banking is becoming the ‘new normal’, many clients are hoping this temporary ‘new normal’ becomes permanent. However, while the potential of digital banking has been realised and has benefited a mass number of clients, the discussion now shifts to encouraging clients who prefer to conduct in-branch transactions to utilise digital banking portals during and post-pandemic. The solution will not present itself overnight, but there is a distinct role for financial groups to usher their clients into the new age of banking.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has pushed the world to digital and low-touch commerce. It has exposed our banking public’s dependence on in-branch visits and physical contact but in the same breath has shown that with behaviour change it is possible to realise the true potential of the digital banking experience. It has jolted banks awake to the imperative of developing and implementing a digital transformation strategy, not in the future, but now!
About The Author:
Derwin M. Howell was appointed an Executive Director of Republic Bank Limited in 2012. He also serves as a Director on the Boards of Republic Bank (Barbados) Limited and Republic Bank (Suriname) N.V. Mr. Howell holds a BSc. In Electrical Engineering (First Class Honours) and an Executive MBA both from the University of the West Indies. He holds an MSc in Telecommunications Systems from the University of Essex and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program (AMP). He is a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (SMIEEE), a Member of the Engineering Council of the United Kingdom (Chartered Engineer) and a Member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (MIET).