About Face: Military Banks Offer Advice on Remote Customer Relationships

By Beth Tancredi

As many banks struggle to adapt to the remote banking interests of their customers during the global pandemic, one market has been advocating for remote customer relationships all along: Those that serve our country’s military service members.

The Association of Military Banks of America was created in 1959 by a group of bankers who operated on military installations and recognized that the transient lives of military personnel require a different kind of care and consideration when it comes to meeting their financial needs.

“Moving from place to place every two to three years comes with its financial challenges,” says Steven Lepper, a retired Air Force major general who now serves as president and CEO of AMBA. “Our banks tend to focus on the underlying financial foundations of our military troops and go out of our way to advocate for those interests.”

Most often, this means ensuring that their customers have easy remote access to their money, people and information regardless of whether they are on U.S. soil or abroad.

And with few signs of a return to total in-person banking on the immediate horizon, banks that don’t typically cater to military personnel can take some valuable lessons from those that do on how to best serve their customers.

Advocate for your customers and the community

“Military banks care about what lies beneath the customer-bank relationships and focuses on the benefits we can give to the members,” says Lepper.

While many national banks largely turned to all-digital platforms as a solution to solve their relationship needs during COVID-19, some community banks, like Valley Bank, realized right away that the personal relationships, not just the tools, were still key to customer experience.

“One of our key findings is that remote banking doesn’t necessarily mean that our customers are completely isolated or interested in a digital experience only,” says Bob Bardusch, COO at Valley Bank. “We’ve always put relationships first and use technology to build and enhance those relationships. Building relationships requires a deeper understanding of the customer experience through their unique perspective and providing a personalized experience with customized solutions. That’s why in addition to a substantial investment in digital services we’ve also tripled the size of our customer experience team to provide a more robust level of personalized service and a deeper focus on empathy.”

But as Lepper will tell you, it is not just a matter of advocating for the individual but focusing on the community at large as well.

And many banks did just that by swiftly moving to action in recent months to support local businesses with Payment Protection Program loans.

“When the SBA first rolled out the Paycheck Protection Program it was very unclear how to execute these loans,” says Bardusch. “But we moved quickly and worked around the clock to create a program that included a dynamic online platform, coupled with the personalized support of our commercial bankers to support the small business community when they needed us most. In the end, we punched well above our weight to provide over 12,000 critical loans with more than $2 billion in origination. We estimate that we saved over 170,000 jobs altogether through our efforts.”

Offer remote account openings and closings

But while face-to-face contact is important, military banks also understand that many of their customers cannot personally visit their branch to open or close accounts because they’re deployed or traveling.

“Our customers can go to links on our member banks’ websites to open bank accounts,” Lepper says. “That kind of digital banking is something that most of our banks have embraced from opening, closing and every transaction in between.”

Valley Bank, like most, has seen an uptick in ATM, online and mobile transactions in the last three months. Valley’s online platform gives customers the ability to open or close accounts on the bank’s website in a process that takes roughly 10 minutes.

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And Valley Bank continues to seek out new opportunities to improve its digital footprint. With the help of Ciphertext Solutions, a digital banking solutions provider whose own leadership team includes a COO with the military experience to help influence the design of products for the on-the-move lifestyle, Valley Bank will soon add new digital and virtual card offerings that put the control in the hands of the customer.

“For military members, accessing a bank when a problem arises may not be as simple as it is for someone in the civilian world,” says Walter Quiroga, CEO of Ciphertext. “They may be on a training exercise, in training school, moving around from base to base, or even deployed. So we offer solutions that allow banks to address customer issues in real-time no matter where they are.”

“Digital issuance is such a key part of the future of banking,” adds Bardusch. “It will give customers the advantage of applying for a card, getting approved and using it on their phone all within minutes of the digital application. It will also offer more security than any basic swipe transaction of a traditional card.”

Offering these types of new products gives customers the ability to replace cards immediately in the event of a card compromise or breach.

Ensure safe access to money without penalty

This past December, the Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with AMBA to offer the Veterans Benefits Banking Program, a program that gives veterans and their beneficiaries a safe, reliable and inexpensive way to receive and access their VA monetary benefits through financial services at participating banks and credit unions.

Similarly, with a recent influx in the number of CARES Act economic impact payments and unemployment funds being issued through paper checks or pre-paid debit cards, non-military customers also need to be able to access their funds without fear of fraud or overdrawing on their accounts.

“People need those funds right now,” says Bardusch. ”We took a stance early on that our customers would have access to their money without the fear of penalties due to insufficient funds. They want 100 percent of that cash and the ability to protect it. And that’s exactly what we give our customers by temporarily waiving all overdraft fees during this time of uncertainty.”

Arm customers with information

“Today, a person can’t come into the military unless they have a bank account,” says Lepper. “And if they don’t, they are required to open one when they get to basic training so by the time their first paycheck arrives, it will be deposited right into their account.”

With that in mind, one of the primary functions that military banks offer is financial education free of charge to the entire population of the installations on which they serve, at the bank’s expense and with their own resources. “We need to educate less financially savvy military families, regardless of whether they are bank customers, to understand the true value of money and how it can work for them,” he adds.

But while Lepper contends that Valley Bank has yet to find an effective digital alternative to in-person financial advice and education, the bank may have found a digital solution for educating customers.

“Right now, we’re less focused on creating new products and more determined to educate customers about the tools and resources that are already available to them,” explains Bardusch.

The bank’s online resource library, for example, offers online educational resources on everything from choosing the right personal account for you to securing a home loan, from protecting yourself from financial scams to putting your money in the right place during a crisis.

Bardusch adds that Zoom meetings with a bank employee for customers who don’t want to meet in person are also being offered to answer any financial questions they may have during this pandemic.

The good news is that your bank may already have many of these products and services in its arsenal. And if that’s the case, it may be as simple as shifting the marketing strategy to remind customers about your continued commitment to the one-on-one relationship during a global pandemic with the added benefit of products and services they can use remotely.

Beth Tancredi is a New Jersey-based writer whose focus is financial services, advertising technology, healthcare and the media.