The pandemic shutdowns expedited community banks’ digital transformation journeys—including the adoption of virtual financial advisory services. More and more community banks offering wealth management now provide these services, not as a substitute for in-person meetings, but rather as a supplement.

They are following a trend across the wealth management sector. While most financial advisors still prefer in-person meetings with clients, a 2021 survey by SmartAsset Advisors LLC found that the pandemic spurred most to offer video calls, and more than a third said they expected to continue the practice post-pandemic, in addition to sending emails and texts to clients.

By offering virtual advisory services, community banks have the potential to significantly reduce the amount of time required from, and friction for, customers, says Ashish Garg, cofounder and CEO of Eltropy Inc. in Milpitas, Calif., a fintech that provides a digital communications platform for community financial institutions.

“Traditionally, customers preferred going to a branch for financial advisory services, because they were discussing large sums of money,” Garg says. “With the rise of virtual and video banking technologies, however, customers still have the reassurance of talking to someone face to face, but they can do so from the comfort of their home, their car or wherever they may be.”

Like telehealth and healthcare, virtual options make financial advisory services more accessible for many people—especially if the level of service online is on par with what they would experience in person, he says.

Going digital

Coastal Heritage Bank in Weymouth, Mass., recently adopted Eltropy’s digital communications platform and plans to roll out virtual capabilities across the institution, including for its wealth management arm, says Scott Ambroceo, senior vice president at the $910 million-asset community bank.

“While the bank is starting slow in its deployment to develop internal subject matter experts on the platform,” he says, “it can see opportunities in the near term to expand on what it’s doing today, in order to assist in attracting and retaining relationships through a secure and convenient digital banking platform.”

The virtual capabilities are built on the success of Coastal Heritage Bank’s earlier digital transformation moves, in part due to customer preferences during the pandemic, he says.

“As we were seeing high adoption rates of our digital platform by our customers, we were also seeing significant success in managing our business, many times remotely, through internal web-based collaboration software, due to the ongoing pandemic,” Ambroceo says. “Naturally, we began focusing on our options to expand our digital banking platform to include a face-to-face experience from the comfort of the customer’s home, business or wherever life placed them at the moment they needed their bank.”

Via an interactive widget on Coastal Heritage Bank’s website, customers will be able to initiate video calls to staff, aided by technology to authenticate the customer’s identity, he says. Joint-account owners can join the calls from two different areas of the world, if needed.

Moreover, staff will be able to help customers complete forms through video calls using eSign, Ambroceo says. eSign documents can be presented for signature and retained as part of the bank’s permanent records, eliminating the need for single or joint account owners from having to provide wet signatures either in-branch or through the mail.

In addition, customers can use the digital platform for 24/7 chatbox conversations with automated responses to more than 100 common questions received by the bank, as well as text-only conversations for quick questions and audio-only conversations depending on customers’ preferences, he says.

To be more user-friendly, digital communication platforms need to offer all these capabilities in addition to video calls, Garg says.

“The fact that consumers have become used to so many different channels of communication—and prefer different kinds of communication for different situations—creates a challenge for community banks,” he says. “They need to offer the full suite of communications options that their consumers may want.”

Other needs for virtual advisory services

Integrations are another important consideration for community banks, because they navigate so many IT systems—a lending system, a CRM, and an e-signature system like DocuSign, among others, Garg says. Institutions need a solution that can automate the flow of information from one system to another.

Data security is also critical—digital communication platforms need to encrypt both stored data and data that is captured during a voice call, he says.

Offering virtual advisory services not only supplements in-person meetings; it can also help ensure that staffing levels are maintained—something particularly important in this era of the Great Resignation, Garg says.

“With ongoing labor shortages, this is a big challenge for community financial institutions, especially as they expand into new markets,” he says. “This kind of technology ensures that banks can address the concerns of customers no matter where they live.”