Credit unions say pandemic-induced digital services ‘here to stay’

April 09, 2021
Maryland The Daily Record Logo

By: Pete Pichaske
April 9, 2021
 
Mobile check deposits, online loan applications, more debit cards for use at ATMs. These are just a few of the changes financial institutions have launched — or dramatically boosted — since COVID-19 made in-person banking a fond memory.
 
“The impact of the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of a broader range of digital banking offerings and shifted consumers of all ages away from the branch at an unprecedented pace,” according to the Bank Administration Institute, a national banking research institute. “What could have taken years happened in months due to the pandemic.”

Maryland’s credit unions are no exception. Executives at a handful of the institutions reported big increases in the use of digital services over the past year.
 
The Johns Hopkins Federal Credit Union, with more than 40,000 members and three branches, already offered digital loan processes and some electronic document-signing before COVID-19 hit, according to Lynn M. Regan, the credit union’s chief experience officer.
 
But when it did hit, she said, “our loan team basically just went 100 percent digital.”
The credit union also boosted its online banking and mobile app so members could request a check withdrawal or make a deposit without visiting a branch.

In addition, the credit union designed a speedier procedure for issuing debit cards so members could use ATM machines to get cash, and it converted dozens of forms so they could be signed electronically.
 
All of the changes remain, Regan said, adding that they are especially important because so many credit union members now work at home and are farther from a branch.

“We continue to explore other ways to enhance access,” Regan added. “While this past year has been like no other, we were able to double down on our focus on the digital channel, while taking many steps to ensure staff and member safety.”
 
The 85-year-old Point Breeze Credit Union, based in Hunt Valley, already had a “full suite” of on-line and mobile banking services for members, including mobile deposit and check capture, according to President Tonia Niedzialkowski.
 
When the pandemic hit, the institution added online loan applications and e-signatures so members could remotely sign documents — “making the process easier faster and more convenient,” she said.
 
In addition, Point Breeze rolled out digital wallets, which allow members to use both Apple and Google Pay to make payments.
 
Niedzialkowski said the response from members to the changes have been “overwhelmingly positive.” Monthly mobile deposit transactions increased by 57 percent between March and June of 2020, while mobile deposit app use rose by 59 percent during the same time frame.
 
The State Employees Credit Union of Maryland, the state’s largest credit union with $3.77 billion in assets and more than 250,000 members, has undergone similar changes in the past year.
 
“Technology as a whole contributed to the growth of digital banking over the past 10 or 15 years,” said Becky Smith, SECU’s executive vice president of marketing and strategy. “But the pandemic absolutely accelerated the adoption.”
 
COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures forced consumers to test ways of banking “they were not necessarily keen to test in the past,” Smith said. The result has been an across-the-board increase of digital banking at SECU over the past year.
 
“It’s been interesting to see some of those members that were not as comfortable with those channels turning to slowly adopt them,” Smith said. She said a lot of research has been done on why many people prefer to go to their branch to do their banking — it feels easier, virtual services can be difficult to navigate, and more.
 
“Over the last year, it’s almost been kind of seeing is believing for people,” she said. “They were forced to test those channels, and they found they could do a lot of what they didn’t think they’d be able to do.”
 
Part of members’ success with virtual services, Smith said, has been SECU’s efforts to make digital banking easier. The credit union has provided a “safety net” for reluctant users that includes chat features, video conferences, even a feature that allows bankers to “co-browse” with the member so they can walk them through their online banking tasks.

The Linthicum-based SECU also has invested heavily in its “virtual branch,” she said, creating a virtual environment that makes members feel they’re in a real branch and offering free video consultations with employees.
 
The shift to digital banking, the credit union executives say, will not disappear when the pandemic eases and branches re-open. “I don’t believe we’ll be going back at all,” SECU’s Smith said. “I think we’ll build on this momentum that was sort of forced upon us.”
 
“While we intend to reopen for services in the next few months, assuming no extreme outbreaks, we recognize that many of the new processes and services provide greater convenience for all members,” said Hopkins credit union’s Regan.
 
Those new processes and services, she added, “are here to stay.”