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In banking, pandemic-era tech changes are here to stay

Janet Currie, president of Bank of America Greater Maryland, said the bank has seen an acceleration of technology use in banking by clients.

When the pandemic took root nearly two years ago, banking – at least the way most people had known it — was thrown into disarray.

Gone were the days of walking into a local branch to deposit a check with a friendly teller or to sit down with a financial adviser. Banking became a new world of digital services and online meetings.

Like banks across the country, Maryland banks have adapted to the pandemic with a wide range of technical innovations. Banks both large and small have been forced to offer services (and the accompanying tools and tutorials to help customers use those services) that until two years ago were either rare or nonexistent.

“At the start of the pandemic, the need for products and capabilities that make it easy, convenient and safe to manage finances, anytime and anywhere, became greater than ever,” said Janet Currie, president of Bank of America Greater Maryland, the state’s largest bank in terms of market share. “Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen an acceleration of the trend toward our clients using digital for more and more of their everyday banking needs.”

As Currie suggested, the pandemic sped up a trend that had already begun, especially at larger banks. She noted that Bank of America had been investing in mobile and online channels for the previous decade.

Still, the pandemic prompted even the big banks to ramp up their offerings and their investments in digital services.

Bank of America launched a client support tool through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and boosted the capabilities of its virtual financial assistant, among numerous other changes made by the bank.

M&T Bank, which is based in Buffalo, N.Y., but has a huge presence in Maryland, had to boost its digital offerings dramatically to meet demand when the pandemic hit.

“Two years into this, we’ve seen customers use this (technology) in every aspect of how they manage their financial life,” said Mary Kate Loftus, senior vice president and director of digital banking at M&T Bank. “At the branches, in their day-to-day banking, with money transfers, paying bills, budgeting.”

Matt Calhoun, senior vice president and M&T’s retail market manager for Greater Baltimore and Delaware. (Submitted photo)

Matt Calhoun, senior vice president and M&T’s retail market manager for Greater Baltimore and Delaware, said that before the pandemic the bank routinely asked customers about using digital platforms — a topic that didn’t engender much enthusiasm at the time.

Typically, he explained, customers would say: “ ‘No, I’m here in the branch, maybe next time you can show me.’ Now they say, ‘Can you show me how to do this now?’ ”

“Our employees and customers are much more versed in the capabilities we have,” Calhoun said. “The pandemic just expedited everything – the use and awareness of the tools available has been heightened.”

To accommodate the explosion of interest in digital banking, M&T also rolled out a number of new digital tools, such as an online notary and electronic document-signing.

At Sandy Spring Bank, a community bank based in Olney, the pandemic “changed the way we do business,” said Jay O’Brien, the bank’s executive vice president and chief banking officer.

At the pandemic’s peak, roughly 90% of the bank’s employees were working online, up from about 15% pre-pandemic, O’Brien said, adding, “We had to really accelerate our digital efforts and help clients get more adjusted to that sort of delivery.”

Like other banks, Sandy Spring developed tutorials for customers on how to use new technologies. The bank also employed email and texts to keep customers informed about available services.

“We’ve continued to make upgrades to mobile and online capabilities to make the experience better and faster,” O’Brien said.

The tech explosion has not come without a cost, pointed out O’Brien, who said Sandy Spring has budgeted $20 million for such investments this year.

“It’s one of those things banks will have to continue to monitor,” he said.

Even as they look forward to the end of the pandemic, bankers unanimously agreed that their business was not likely to return to the way it was two years ago.

“Most of our customers have adapted and appreciate the enhancements,” said Joseph Haskins Jr., chairman and CEO of the six-branch, Baltimore-based Harbor Bank of Maryland. “We expect the desire for remote access and technological enhancements to continue.”

Said M&T Bank’s Calhoun: “Customers will continue to seek easy and simple ways to do everyday banking, but they will look for a personal banker in their local branch to solve more complex problems. I think the blend of offering digital capabilities and having a physical presence in our communities is the way to go for the future.”