WITH the onset of Covid-19 in Trinidad and Tobago in March 2020, commercial banks and non-bank financial institutions were forced to improve existing digital solutions or accelerate the development of new ones.
That is because lockdowns, work-from-home restrictions and social distancing made it difficult for many customers to get to their bank branches and restricted the number of bankers available to work in those branches.
As a special project, Express Business reached out to three financial institutions to find out how the pandemic changed the way they interact with their customers.
Republic Bank Ltd’s general manager of group marketing and communications, Karen Tom Yew-Jardine said the bank has made huge inroads in reaching the unbanked by the introduction of a fully digital wallet when it launched the EndCash payment solution in March of this year.
“This allows people who have no account in the traditional banking system the ability to receive payments from their peers or employers via a mobile app and use the funds credited into their EndCash wallets at any of our over 300 merchants.
“We also offer easy access to cash to persons with or without accounts at any of our 124 ATMs across the country whereby anyone with a cell phone can receive a unique code via SMS which when used at the ATM, allows them to withdraw cash.”
Tom Yew-Jardine added that the commercial bank also adjusted its account opening process to facilitate online submission of documents and fully online interviews for both account opening and retail loans.
Earlier this month, Republic Financial Holdings Limited announced profit attributable to equity holders of the parent of $1.308 billion for the year ended September 30, 2021.
Although the performance was 17.3 per cent ($273.1 million) below the 2019 performance, it represented an improvement of 44.7 per cent ($404.0 million) over the 2020 reported profits. Total assets stood at $109.2 billion on September 30, 2021, an increase of $4.9 billion or 4.7 per cent over that of the prior year.
In announcing the results, Republic Financial Holdings Ltd chairman Vincent Pereira said, “In 2021, Republic Financial Holdings Limited (RFHL) and its subsidiaries (the Group) continued to support our clients across all the territories in which we operate. The Group assisted clients through deferral of loan payments, reduced interest rates, and discounted fees. We took part in various national initiatives to promote higher vaccination rates and to help those adversely affected by the Coronavirus. The financial impact of this was reduced revenues and increased costs across the Group. It bolstered our overall performance to some extent by the full year’s contribution of our new subsidiary in the British Virgin Islands, notable improvements in Ghana and the Cayman Islands, and lower levels of provisioning.”
Royal Bank of Canada’s Caribbean spokesman, Andrew McGrath, said the Canadian-owned bank has been on a journey of digital transformation for some time now.
“We’ve been making investments in our digital capabilities for nearly a decade,” said McGrath, who is RBC’s director of corporate communications for personal and commercial.
“That is why when the pandemic hit, RBC was able to keep serving clients digitally and without requiring them to come into branches for day-to-day banking activities. “We are constantly looking at new technologies and new capabilities to bring to our digital space to offer clients more flexibility and more convenience in how they bank with us,” he said.
He said that in terms of digital usage, since the pandemic started in March 2020, RBC has seen the number of clients using its digital app increase by more than 30 per cent.
McGrath noted that RBC’s Caribbean banking app continues to have largely the same functionalities as it did before the pandemic hit.
“This is due to the fact that we have been investing in digital for so long. However, we did add an option to request a payment deferral when we had launched the broader deferral programme last year. We are also planning several upgrades to improve user experience and add more flexibility in 2022.”
Asked whether the pervasiveness of digital offerings allows RBC to close more branches in T&T, McGrath said the answer is no.
“Branches will always be an important part of our Caribbean network. Our approach to branches is to set them up as digitally-enabled advice hubs where clients are offered full services in an advice-oriented setting that showcases our digital offerings and functionalities. Our newest branch in Trinidad and Tobago, located at our St. Clair regional headquarters, is an example of this model,” he said.
McGrath also said that because of COVID, RBC looked for ways to enable as many employees as possible to work from home. This included units previously unable to work remotely, such as our advice centre call centre.
“Today, most of our teams are equipped to work at home thanks to investments in new technologies and new capabilities,” he said.
RBC as well is currently in the process of examining what it introduced during the initial phases of the Covid-19 pandemic to see how it can keep leveraging positive changes in the years ahead.
“We learned a lot – both about how our teams work and how our clients interact with us and those learnings have, and will continue to, shape how we operate in this new environment,” said McGrath, who is based in Toronto.
The Express Business reached out to JMMB Trinidad’s chief marketing officer, Lisa-Maria Alexander, to find out what changes have been made to improve banking for their customers.
Alexander said in September 2020, the JMMB Group upgraded its core banking systems to better serve its client base.
“That upgrade meant that all JMMB Bank clients would be migrated from the existing banking platform to a new more versatile and dynamic banking system.”
With limited foot traffic at the banks in the pandemic, Alexander said the upgrade to several key services and solutions was also advanced, including the Bank’s online banking platform “Moneyline”, which allows clients to have more independent control of their banking services.
“The services available on Moneyline include, among other services- monetary transfers from one internal account to another, monetary transfers to other banking institutions, applications for managers cheques and virtual access to bank statements,” she explained.
Also following, in August 2021, the chief marketing officer said JMMB Bank introduced its Visa Debit Chip and Pin card, which allows for clients to utilize the secure chip and pin technology with the added benefit of contactless payments.
Asked if any of the new products and services were game-changers, Alexander said both upgrades positively impacted how JMMB Group does business.
With the upgrade of the Bank’s core banking systems, clients of JMMB Bank can expect the same level of service, the same revolutionary solutions, and the same ease of doing business whether they bank with us in Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, or Jamaica.”
Alexander identified that the upgrades and new products were in the works well before the pandemic hit.
“Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, we knew these upgrades would enhance our client’s banking experience with us and so we proceeded as planned,” said Alexander.
However, with introducing these upgrades, she said JMMB Trinidad knew there would be a teething issues as the non-commercial bank moved to migrate all of their clients to the new system.
“The bank understood that ultimately these upgrades would benefit our clients. We expected we would get some resistance to the changes but as with everything, new systems eventually become the norm.”
To meet customers’ expectations, she said it’s pretty early to determine just yet, but so far, despite some of the initial challenges, the bank believes that the upgrades have exceeded its expectations. It also hopes that as time progresses its clients also feel the positive impact of what The JMMB Group is aiming to achieve.
The question was put to Alexander how the financial institution dealt with customer complaints about introducing the new product or service?
“Well before the upgrades, we began communicating with our clients to ensure that they were aware of the upcoming changes. We took heed from other financial institutions that would have also implemented similar upgrades, and we tried to be as transparent as possible with our clients. That being said we did experience some hiccups during the migration period and as such, we introduced our Client Care Centre through which we funneled all of our client complaints which were dealt with directly by our team of financial experts.”
She said the bank’s team worked tirelessly to ensure that where clients were negatively impacted that they were made whole again.
With the bank’s new systems in place, Alexander said it allows them to identify their clients across entities and across platforms.
“If you are a JMMB client at our bank and you desire to become an investments client, your information is available. Bear in mind though that certain requirements are still standard such as your Source of Funds which speaks to incoming funds to your account over a certain threshold. It is not meant to be onerous but rather a safety measure for all parties involved,” she explained.
Performance of the new product
In explaining whether any of the new products and services were aimed at the unbanked and underbanked, Alexander noted that one of the newer entities that exists under the JMMB Group banner is JMMB Express Finance, which is about four years old and is specifically aimed at serving the unbanked and underbanked by providing access to unsecured loans up to TT$50,000.
“So we have been focused on this demographic for quite a while. In fact, JMMB Group founder, Joan Duncan, believed that all persons regardless of creed or race should be afforded access to financial solutions to suit their individual needs. JMMB was born out of that desire for financial equity and we are proud that we are able to contribute in this area and positively impact the financial goals of our clients.
“While we did not introduce a specific solution aimed at that particular demographic during this period, our central ethos is aimed at providing financial education and financial planning to help all of our clients to achieve their life goals,” she said.
Asked what was the investment cost of the new product and services, along with the expected return on investment, she said the financial institution was unable to answer those questions at this time.
The upgrades in their product and services, she highlighted, are integrated into the bank’s parent company in Jamaica and are being implemented in the Dominican Republic currently.
According to Alexander, there are plans across the Group, to roll out new products and services as they have a robust pipeline of new digital products, including a Moneyline upgrade that will have the TT clients being able to buy and sell stocks using their Online banking access.