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Monday, May 16, 2022

Banks of the Future

For bankers in the Valley region, the last 18 months have been a test of flexibility and responsiveness. The traditionally in-person relationships with banks have been permanently altered by the pandemic, resulting in a hybrid future for the industry that looks more flexible – both for both customers and employees – than in the past.“We’ve been as agile as possible, trying to adapt and put client safety and employee safety at the top of our priority list. But the pandemic has also allowed for us to really become more innovative, on how we interact with our customers,” Hamed Tavajohi, Los Angeles market leader for U.S. Bank, said. “I would say, how we’ve evolved over the past 18 months at U.S. Bank, that probably would have been a five-year process under normal circumstances.”The bank recently reopened a newly remodeled branch at 14500 Roscoe Blvd. in Panorama City. It features a “digital discovery center” where bankers can demonstrate the bank’s mobile app and a video capability to see the banker for Zoom-like interactions.“In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the branch incorporates design changes focused on protecting the health of customers and employees, including plexiglass barriers, anti-microbial surfaces and signage to encourage social distancing,” the bank said in a statement.Seven additional remodels at other Los Angeles County branches, including one in Sylmar, are currently underway.Fintech upgradeU.S. Bank and Wells Fargo & Co., as well as other regional banks and credit unions, have invested heavily in upgrading financial technology over the course of the pandemic. In addition to developing the capacity to host virtual consulting appointments and creating digital tools for sending cashiers checks, major banks have worked to create hybrid work arrangements at local branches. For employees, this means a portion of jobs will remain fully remote as some basic in-branch services shift to digital kiosks and online transactions. For consumers, more services are available through apps and specialty advisors remain present in the office for drop-in and appointment consultations.“We have rolled out what we call the interactive teller machines, which is, think of a very enhanced ATM that allows you to pay bills, to cash checks and to get multiple denominations,” Tavajohi said. “So if somebody wants to come and do that transaction, they can go to the ATM. If they’re looking for advice, or guidance – from retirement to helping their small business to applying for a mortgage – having that one-on-one interaction and allowing space for that is really important to us.”At Wells Fargo, as well as smaller financial institutions such as Premier America Credit Union, headquartered in Chatsworth, and Bank of Santa Clarita, similar physical and digital improvements have been made over the last 18 months, including multiple rounds of digital app updates.“We have continually invested in two key areas, the first being our digital capabilities,” said Robin Choi, region bank president of Wells Fargo. “We’ve added functionalities that didn’t exist before simply because so many of our customers simply did not or could not come into our branches. … The second area where we’re investing a lot of energy is, a lot of customers are still coming into the branches, but they’re coming into branches for different things. For a lot of the transactional visits, our mobile platform is able to address pretty much all of them, but they are coming in for deeper conversations. So we’ve been spending a lot of time delivering new training, new content that goes a little bit deeper into aspects of one’s financial future, so that we can do a better job setting our customers up on a proper path that they can be successful.”Community outreachBoth Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank representatives said their institutions have invested significantly in programs to increase financial literacy and promote volunteerism among bank employees. U.S. Bank will make a $5,000 donation to Plummer Elementary School to design and install murals throughout the North Hills campus at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. The bank also plans to collaborate with Plummer Elementary’s Parent Center to provide financial literacy courses in English and Spanish. The school donation program is in conjunction with the Panorama City branch reopening.Wells Fargo has launched its National Unbanked Advisory Taskforce, as well as financial literacy courses in local communities, to improve banking service for traditionally underserved populations.While the pandemic highlighted the role of banking professionals and the need for responsive service, Choi said the last year has underscored the importance of community-focused banking and the strength of essential workers.“I’m sure that my colleagues at the banks will share the same sentiment but, as a leader in a very essential role within the banking industry, we were open throughout the pandemic. We remain open for our customers and our employees have been customer-facing the whole time,” Choi said. “I don’t even know that the word inspiring can fully capture the sentiment that I have inside, how employees across the service industry rose to the challenge of COVID-19, and everything else that has happened over the course of these last 18 months. To me, it speaks to the best aspects of the human spirit.”

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert
Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert
Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert is a Los Angeles-based reporter covering retail, hospitality and philanthropy for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. In addition to her current beat, she is particularly interested in criminal justice topics, health and science stories and investigative journalism. She received her AA in Humanities from Moorpark College in 2016, her BA in Communication from Cal Lutheran University in 2019 and followed it up with a MA in Specialized Journalism from USC in the summer of 2020. Through her work, Katherine aspires to help strengthen the fragile trust between members of the media and the public.

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