The in-branch experience made virtual

During a digital reinvention, technology, customer experiences, employee expertise and business strategy all come into play. But a winning plan is within reach for community banks looking to embrace digital, according to two innovation-focused community bankers.

By Colleen Morrison


A digital transformation is no easy task, but the process is essential to keep pace in today’s modern banking environment.

“The financial industry is under a lot of disruption, and there’s a need for people to pay attention to the space,” says Brian Otteman, chief experience officer at $350 million-asset High Plains Bank in Longmont, Colo. “You’ve got to have a plan for how you’re going to survive and get the right talent and leadership to propel you forward.”

Phil Suckow, director of digital and innovation at $1.7 billion-asset IncredibleBank in Wausau, Wis., concurs. “Transformation is about looking at the total experience. We try not only to explore how we can modernize the customer side, but also the employee side. Because knowledgeable, helpful employees who have access to more are able to deliver an incredible customer experience.”

While making that leap over the digital divide may seem daunting, Otteman and Suckow suggest viewing it from the vantage point of a core community bank strength: connection to customers.

Digital transformation is all about modernizing the customer relationship.

Phil Suckow: When you undertake digital transformation, you’re fundamentally changing how you operate and deliver value to the customer. This includes examining how you’ve always done something and then re-engineering how it could be done with a more modern process or technology to meet new and future customer needs.

Brian Otteman: I totally agree. The one thing I would add is that there’s also an opportunity to change the way you interact with the customer because of the advantage that you create. Customers have to figure out how to use this technology, and you have to teach them how to use it. As we become more proficient with these digital transformation tools, it allows community bankers to deepen our relationships with our customers. Now we’re not focusing on the small transactions; we’re focusing on the bigger rocks, the bigger issues that customers have, and we can spend more time on them.

Suckow: And it also allows you to upskill your employees into building deeper relationships with customers rather than processing basic tasks.

This evolution requires a big-picture approach to banking.

Otteman: Just this past year, we introduced online account opening. That’s a pretty big jump for community banks like ours, because we’re rooted in risk management. We had to do a lot of thinking about strategy, what it was we were trying to accomplish, and what it meant to be relevant as a financial institution today in order to make that jump.

Suckow: Then, once you know and understand your strategic vision, you have to have some hard conversations with vendors and partners. You really have to ensure that your strategic vision—how you want to deliver customer service, what you want to integrate and how open your providers are—is at the forefront of your journey, because that’s going to drive how you’re going to be innovative. You can have the best ideas, but if you don’t have the primary partner that’s going to help you do it, it’s just an idea that you’re not able to bring to market.

Digital transformation demands enhanced communication and new skill sets.

Otteman: As an industry, we were focusing a lot of energy on how to handle basic banking tasks, giving customers the ability to solve these problems on their own. When COVID hit, communication became much harder; less people came to the branches, and we needed to answer a greater volume of calls and secure online text conversations. Using technology to enhance communications was one of the biggest challenges of the past couple of years. I think there will be a lot of innovation over the next few years as we discover how to enrich these communication channels in unique and interesting ways.

Suckow: Before, transformation was embedded into business lines, but now the industry has started to realize that there’s a skill set for transformation and innovation that can help business lines accelerate and think outside of day-to-day operations. I think we’ll see more people come into the field who are disruptors on the institutional level. This is a call to community banks to just get started. You might not be able to hire an innovation lead just yet, but don’t keep waiting; begin the process of thinking differently.


Colleen Morrison is a writer in Maryland.