The business world has been transformed in the months since coronavirus hit – and banks have had to change with it.
Once the scale of the UK coronavirus epidemic became clear, the business world turned upside down almost instantly, and high streets emptied.
Banks, particularly those like NatWest with large branch networks, also had to adapt quickly to a very changed country.
Business customers were scrabbling for support and poring over details of new Government lending schemes- while with bank branches closed, customers also had to find new ways of doing their finances.
Along with other high street banks, NatWest had to transform the way it worked as the pandemic hit – and has continued to adapt as local economies have weaved in and out of lockdown.
We spoke to two key NatWest leaders in London and the South East to discuss how the bank had been changed by the pandemic – and about what comes next.
How business was affected – and how banks had to adapt
Rachel Blackamore is managing director for personal banking in London and the South East for NatWest – and is chair of the bank’s regional board. She spoke to BusinessLive with Sarah Bilby, who is managing director for business banking in the region, and also a member of the bank’s regional board.
Central London was hardest hit at the start of the pandemic because the area was almost completely locked down. And even as lockdowns have lifted, the centre of the capital remains quiet as so many people who would normally be in its offices are instead working from home and hospitality remains subdued.
While Ms Bilby and Ms Blackamore’s region may be centred on London, it’s a diverse patch including towns and rural areas – so the crisis has hit different parts of the area in different ways.
That is reflected in the NatWest PMI economic surveys, where the South East has outperformed London in its recovery from Covid.
Ms Bilby said: “Many businesses have been affected in very different ways.
“So if you think about the smaller end of the market, the newsagents have done incredibly well, because people started using them more than perhaps other stores. Whereas obviously gyms and retail, the hospitality sector has been massively impacted.
“Every business is individual, every customer has their own needs and requirements. And some of them have to pivot more than others. So when takeaways were able to open some restaurants were able to pivot to deliveries and doing something very, very different.”
The Government’s business support offering served as lifelines to many businesses, but put pressure on the banks and financial institutions that had to deliver many of them.
Ms Bilby said: “The CBILS loan scheme, obviously, was a massive undertaking. We’ve never seen so much lending. We had to design new products, because the government set out the parameters of what they wanted.
“But of course, then we had to design something, a complete product in the background, that could be as digital as possible.”
Behind the scenes, technical solutions had to be put in place to help the bank’s website and call centre teams handle the increased volume of inquiries, while staff were moved into telephony to make sure customers got called back by phone or on Zoom.
Ms Bilby says the company is still seeing a “significant amount of borrowing requests” from business customers.
It’s also carrying out a variety of “financial health checks” for businesses to help them go cashless, as customers move away from cash and towards contactless payments.
How the branch network changed as the UK changed
Every retail and hospitality outlet has had to adapt quickly to cope with the effects of coronavirus and the resulting restrictions. Bank branches were no different, with NatWest and its rivals having to negotiate temporary closures, social distancing and changing customer habits.
Ms Blackamore said: “We’ve been more flexible and creative than I ever imagined was possible.
“And I’ve been so very humbled by the speed at which our colleagues have really changed the way that they work, and also continued to enable customers to have the choice about what they do.”
Staff have helped people who usually banked in-branch to move online, or to mobile banking. They have also arranged phone meetings so customers could still have one-on-one time with NatWest staff without having to go into a branch.
However, some business and personal customers did still use the branch network – so at first many branches stayed open, with limited hours.
The branch network was able to adapt to the changes in other ways as it started to reopen.
While some central London branches remained closed for longer, as demand in those office areas had fallen so much, colleagues could instead be diverted to other areas so branches there could stay open.
Over time, opening hours extended and closed branches have reopened.
Ms Blackamore said: “Probably the group that we’ve supported most, most practically, is the over 65s.
“We saw a significant drop in their spending, particularly their shopping. And often it’s when they do the shopping that they call into the branch.
“That led us to the place where we started to think of creative ways in which we could support our customers as foot flow reduced significantly – partly because customers didn’t want to be coming out and putting themselves at risk, but also because we had a lot of colleagues that needed to self isolate because they were clinically vulnerable or extremely vulnerable.
“So our opening hours moved very quickly to 10am til 1pm. We had a core group of colleagues, as key workers who kept our branches open – we kept about 97% of our branches open throughout the whole pandemic – but also a huge workforce working remotely flexibly around their other responsibilities from home.
“The things that I’m most proud of, are the proactive calls made to customers, particularly those over 65. Overall, we made over 330,000 calls to those customers.”
Those older customers had, Ms Blackamore said, “a belief that cash was what they needed”. While that has changed as people got used to contactless, the bank still had to act to help customers who depended on coins and notes.
It introduced a secure cash delivery service, and a “companion card” that people could top up with cash and give to trusted friends or relatives to go shopping with.
Meanwhile, like other high street banks, NatWest offered payment holidays and interest-free overdrafts to help customers through short-term periods of crisis.
NatWest also set up an emergency phone line for NHS workers, which Ms Blackamore said was “well used and really important in those early stages” of the pandemic.
The NHS support line was open 24/7 answered calls in an average of 10 seconds. It’s still running, though demand is less as working patterns have stabilised.
Supporting staff as well as customers through challenging times
It’s been a tough time for customers – but also for bank staff themselves, many of whom were working from home away from their usual support networks in branches and in offices.
Ms Bilby said: “Protecting our staff was really key. So we ran some additional resilience, support and training on how to manage challenging conversations, and how to talk to customers who perhaps were going through some really difficult times.
“We wanted to make sure there was a support group available for those managers that if they’ve had a call that was difficult, they could pick up with the line manager or other wellbeing support.
“It was incredibly challenging with the volumes of calls, the volumes of loans, ever-changing processes to learn, and customers that were in some cases quite upset and distressed, not knowing what was going to happen with their businesses.
“I’m very proud of what our people did to keep themselves going during those times.”
On the personal banking side, bank staff have found ways of staying in touch with their regular customers.
Ms Blackamore said: “I’ve been overwhelmed by how so many of our colleagues have followed up with customers and the regulars of their branch.
“At one branch there was a brother and a sister, who are both 89 and 90, who used to come in every Tuesday afternoon. They hadn’t been in, so a member of staff got in touch. And it turned out, they were both self isolating.
“So every Tuesday since March, she has done their weekly shop for them.
“That’s just one example, but I think that just shows how far our colleagues have gone to really help. And customers in those situations have been incredibly positive about that support.”
NatWest has also continued its work with SafeLives, a charity dedicated to ending domestic violence and abuse. In June it announced a £1m emergency fund for SafeLives to help support the victims of economic abuse.
And on a local level, individual branches have continued their charity work despite the pandemic.
Ms Bilby said her business teams in Ashford and Canterbury carried out a 2,600-mile virtual bike ride to raise cash for Kent Air Ambulance and another local charity, with people riding around near their houses or on exercise bikes at home and then totting up the totals.
Helping people learn about finance
When Alison Rose took over as CEO of NatWest last year, she said she wanted the bank to be “purpose-led”.
On her first day, she told staff: “For millions of our customers, we are the organisation they trust to help them – whether it is their day to day banking or the bigger moments in their financial lives.
“It’s our job to be there right through their lives – from the start of their financial journey as we help teach children about money – through to opening their first accounts – and to supporting families with their day to day financial needs.”
Both Ms Blackamore and Ms Bilby are involved with NatWest’s flagship MoneySense financial education programme for 5-18-year olds – and see it educating people about finance as a key part of their work.
Ms Blackamore said: “It’s absolutely critical because we know that many people leave school – and indeed, many adults have left school – without that basic financial knowledge and education. So that’s why we invest heavily in moneysense, which opened pre pandemic.
“That moved digitally very, very quickly. So through our Facebook platform, we provided anybody with the opportunity to join Moneysense Mondays, Ways to Bank Wednesdays, and friends against scams Fridays.”
The bank also helps young people learn about budgeting – including via the popular Island Saver video game, where young people learn about saving by helping animals on a group if amazing islands.
Ms Blackamore said: “It was an absolute hit. And again, many parents commented that it was the first time their children had started doing some budgeting but in a very accessible way.”
Avoiding scams and fraud – whether romantic or business
It’s not just about younger customers – banks like NatWest have long worked to help their customers avoid frauds and scams. Branch staff have had to become particularly adept at spotting telltale signs of fraud – and sadly, would-be fraudsters have kept busy despite the pandemic.
Ms Blackamore said: “We will always have conversations with customers who come in to pay money away, partly because they could do it themselves online.
“We have always asked customers detailed questions about who they’re paying, why are they paying them, have they ever met them. And most of the customers who have been victim of a scam, have been trained to answer those questions.
“But we continue to find that generally, our experienced colleagues do get a gut feel for who is not quite truthful, not quite honest.
“And we have the opportunity to use the police banking protocol, which we’ve used more times than ever over the last few months where we then refused to make the payment and got police involved.”
“Only last week, £40,000 was stopped at one of our branches in Hornchurch. And these are happening every single day.”
The bank has also partnered with the University of the Third Age, U3A, on anti-fraud training focused on romance scams, impersonation scams and investment scams
In business, Ms Bilby says her teams are keeping a close eye on the applications being made for emergency funding to help businesses through the pandemic.
She said: “The government schemes are something that we need to be very careful and very aware of, because a lot of it is self attested. With the particular CBILS scheme, it’s a self attested scheme.
“One of the things that we are looking at at the moment is – what’s happened with the funds? Has it been used as it has been retained in the business to help with cash flow? Or have they used it to maybe use it for paying off of more expensive debt to make sure it supports the business with its cash flow?
“So we are making sure that where we identify anything, we raise the right sort of concerns.”
What does the future hold?
It’s hard for people to look ahead at the moment as the progress of the pandemic remains uncertain and the threat of local and national lockdowns remains.
But Ms Bilby says that despite the uncertainty her customers are trying to stay upbeat.
She said: “Businesses are trying to be positive, they’re trying to be as creative as they can in pivoting what they do to make it work. They’re trying to find ways of staying open to find ways of being engaged. And it’s been wonderful to see – but obviously, that’s not the case for everybody.
“The majority of customers are feeling fairly optimistic about the future. But we haven’t got a crystal ball – we don’t know what’s coming.””