High-tech, high-touch lending

two smart phones shaking hands

Community bankers say they can get the best of both worlds by using the latest financial technology to meet the needs of customers—whether they want a digital banking experience or not.

By Beth Mattson-Teig


Community bankers are increasingly having to manage a balancing act: How do they expand their digital lending platforms to give the convenience that customers are demanding while not sacrificing their trademark personal service?

Customers increasingly want the best of both worlds when it comes to loan products. Many like the convenience of being able to fill out applications online and send documents electronically at any time and from anywhere. But they also enjoy the personal touch a community bank offers. They like that they can pick up the phone or walk into a branch and talk to someone when they need to.

Indeed, one misconception of digital banking is that it removes or dilutes the personal relationship with clients, when the reality is that it can add to the overall customer experience and strengthen the banking relationship, says J. Kenneth Sykes, senior vice president and senior relationship development officer at $850 million-asset North State Bank in Raleigh, N.C.

Digital lending is just another tool that banks can use to provide a higher level of service, as well as offer different service options, he says. North State Bank offers an end-to-end digital consumer mortgage, from the online application all the way through to a digital closing.

The digital process is faster and more efficient, Sykes says, which frees up more time for loan officers to provide personal service. For example, North State Bank uses the efficiencies created up front with the digital process to make sure that, prior to the actual closing, everyone involved in the transaction has a copy of closing documents so that they have three or four days to address questions or issues. That helps to create a smoother closing and better customer experience, Sykes says.

“We use the digital process to enhance and enrich the client relationship, not define it,” he adds.

No one-size-fits-all strategy

In Beecher, Ill., $152 million-asset First Community Bank and Trust prides itself on being technology forward. The community bank has offered online applications for consumer mortgages for many years. Customers can fill out the online application on their computer, tablet or mobile device. The bank also offers an online application for consumer loans, and it rolled out a new online lending portal for its commercial clients in early December. The portal provides added efficiencies, such as allowing applicants to securely upload financial documents and enabling the loan officer to track the progress of the application.

“Our view is that the technology is an enabler, but it is not one size fits all,” says Greg Ohlendorf, First Community Bank and Trust’s president and CEO. When clients reach out in person or with a phone call, the community bank’s loan officer tells them they have the option of filling out an application online or setting up a meeting at a branch. Likewise, when customers first contact the bank through an online channel, it automatically triggers an alert so a loan officer can call them.

The human touch is important, and Ohlendorf believes it’s important to have consistency where the client will talk to the same one or two people every time, rather than just a random person at a call center. “Customers, in many cases, want to talk to someone who is a name and a face and not a 1-800 number or call center,” he says.

Taking cues from the customer

The digital revolution in the financial world continues to move quickly, and community bankers understand that more client relationships are being built around digital service platforms. Yet they recognize that clients have different desires and comfort levels with technology.

North State Bank takes its cues from the customer in how much or how little personal interaction they want. “During the initial contact process with the consumer, we can pretty much figure out up front what particular service levels that a client wants or needs,” Sykes says.

“During the initial contact process with the consumer, we can pretty much figure out up front what particular service levels that a client wants or needs.”
—J. Kenneth Sykes, North State Bank

North State Bank has an assigned loan officer on the end of each transaction who works to personally escort the customer through the entire loan process.

“As the mortgage process evolves, we see what types of things could be answered best in an email, telephone call or face to face,” Sykes says, “or if customers want to do the entire thing on a digital basis.”


Beth Mattson-Teig is a writer in Minnesota.

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