Banking

Banks try online games, role-playing to teach soft skills

Technical skills such as how to use Excel are straightforward to teach online. Softer skills, such as clearly explaining pandemic relief programs, diffusing a tense customer interaction or showing empathy, are harder to convey remotely.

Financial institutions such as Bank of America; JPMorgan Chase; OceanFirst Financial in Red Bank, New Jersey; and PlainsCapital Bank in Dallas have used a variety of techniques during the pandemic to adapt customer service training to the digital realm — including gamification, video role-playing and testing different answers to questions.

Social distancing necessitated those experiments, but many have proved so successful that banks may choose to keep using those methods.

In some cases, banks have found digital tutorials to be preferable: Online courses are universally available, employees can fit short online lessons into their schedules without leaving the branch short-staffed, and companies can more easily track scores and completion rates.

But keeping employees engaged often means varying the forms of education beyond webinars and regular video calls.

“You can only be engaged for so long on a webinar and then you lose people,” says Jennifer Williams, banking services training manager at PlainsCapital Bank.

PlainsCapital, a unit of the $17.7 billion-asset Hilltop Holdings, turned to gamification. Since the bank was in talks before the pandemic hit with LemonadeLXP, a firm that teaches employees of financial institutions about digital products, it was able to roll out game-like courses quickly when in-person training went digital.

LemonadeLXP, whose bank and credit union clients jumped from six at the beginning of the pandemic to 26 now, is normally used by front-line staff, such as those in the branch or contact center. Its central game encourages players to build a virtual bank by delivering excellent customer service.

Financial institutions can author their own content, including technology demos and role-playing scenarios. A game that teaches how to demonstrate mobile check deposit, for example, may pose questions that cause players to gain or lose customers depending on their answers.

Jennifer Williams, banking services training manager at PlainsCapital, saw it as an enticing way to reinforce knowledge in short bursts, where employees wouldn’t be pulled away from their primary duties.

“You can only be engaged for so long on a webinar and then you lose people,” she said.

Before the pandemic, PlainsCapital largely conducted its training in person. LemonadeLXP games break up the monotony of long webinars that have largely replaced in-person gatherings. They also break down complex topics into digestible chunks. For example, individual games cover separate scenarios where a bank could place holds on certain check deposits and what the limits are on such holds under Regulation CC.

The games can also teach soft skills for everyday conversations. For example, PlainsCapital is working on role-playing how to diffuse a difficult situation with a customer.

This twist on learning has been welcomed by employees. “We’ve received emails stating ‘I had a customer walk in with this situation, and I played a Lemonade game last week so I knew how to handle it,’” Williams said. The bank has organized lotteries with prizes for high scorers, while individual branches have held their own informal competitions, where winners can choose lunch catering or the right to duck out an hour early.

“You don’t want to see your name at the bottom of the list,” Williams said. “It gives people incentive to play games again or a game they haven’t yet played to up their score.”

Recently, she found that first-time players scored an average of 63% across all games, while repeat players are averaging 91%, meaning they have been hunting down the correct answers from bank manuals.

As life returns to normal, Williams plans for LemonadeLXP and other virtual sessions to replace some traditional in-person training, so people don’t need to spend as much time away from their branch.

Bank of America has also grappled with teaching soft skills over the past year remotely. Its empathy-training series, called Life Stages, examines the needs of customers in different phases of their lives. Life Stages is offered as part of The Academy, Bank of America’s onboarding, coaching and development organization for customer-facing employees.

“We hire people from all backgrounds and generations who may or may not have an understanding of what our client’s situation would be,” said John Jordan, head of The Academy. For example, a recent graduate may have not yet married, had children, bought a house or lost a loved one. This program helps employees understand what it’s like for people to go through these major milestones by reviewing digital resources such as real-life customer stories and role-playing (which currently takes place over video).

The pandemic introduced a whole new set of life experiences where no empathy blueprint has yet been laid out. “It’s constantly evolving,” Jordan said. “We try to respond to feedback from the team and listen to what they need. We constantly ask them, what are clients asking about, what do they need in terms of resources.”

Other banks are leaning on forms of video that go beyond regular Zoom calls.

JPMorgan Chase has used Allego, a sales tool that co-founder Mark Magnacca likens to a secure corporate YouTube channel, for more than five years with its bankers. The Needham, Massachusetts,-based Allego also counts Citizens Financial Group in Providence, Rhode Island; Comerica in Dallas and First Horizon in Memphis, Tennessee, among its customers and has seen a 40% increase in bank clients from June 1 through Dec. 31 of 2020.

Companies may use Allego to produce video demos, such as how to use DocuSign; film-and-share videos for onboarding and training; and let employees record themselves giving a presentation or explaining a product for their manager to critique.

JPMorgan uses Allego in two main ways: for managers to share information with employees (which can be faster to do via video than text-based communications), and to role-play scenarios for potential customer interactions.

During the pandemic, “We are using Allego to help us stay better connected with our teams and to get a greater understanding of how our team members are interacting with their clients remotely,” said Jesse Jackson, head of firm-wide learning and talent solutions at JPMorgan.

He finds that using Allego is “materially different” than training employees over Zoom. For one, it doesn’t put employees on the spot. “If you are a banker and are modeling discussions you may have with clients, it may take you a few times to do that in a recorded setting to build confidence before sending that to your manager for critique,” he said.

In other cases, the pandemic called for a solution that consolidates existing courses into one central source.

The $11.6 billion-asset OceanFirst has offered online training courses for years. It also designed its own Certified Digital Banker program to teach all customer-facing employees the ins and outs of financial technology, from account activation to digital wallets.

In January, it formalized these offerings with OFB University. The comprehensive online training portal contains both homegrown content, such as the Certified Digital Banker program, and third-party courses (for instance, on topics such as lean management or motivational ethics), through online marketplace CyberU. (CyberU is a subsidiary of Cornerstone OnDemand, the company that provides the platform for OFB University.)

The company is currently incorporating bankwide regulatory courses into OFB University as well.

“We were probably headed in this direction anyway, but like many things in the pandemic it accelerated our need to wrap this up and get the course content expanded and universally available to all employees,” said Chris Maher, chairman, president and CEO of OceanFirst.

One section of the website will track employees’ progress in various certifications and programs. They will also receive automatic reminders. Besides viewing videos and slides, employees may be tested on their knowledge before they can pass a course.

The Certified Digital Banker training was a mix of in-person and remote instruction before the pandemic, but has now become fully remote. OceanFirst has found workarounds for some situations that benefited from the face-to-face learning. For example, rather than posing questions to a group about using Venmo and seeing what answers people came up with, the online version might pose the same question and offer a sampling of answers, like a multiple-choice question.

“It’s a little less dynamic but it’s very effective,” Maher said.

There are some types of courses that are effectively taught online and are likely to stay that way. Maher acknowledges that other topics, such as diversity and inclusion, benefit from personal interactions.

“When we’re talking about culture, supervisory and managerial tasks, I think those will go back to in-person because you can enrich a session by getting different views from around the room,” Maher said. “But if you need to learn about anti-money-laundering, that’s pretty cut and dry.”

Maher looks at a variety of indicators to measure how the training has affected performance and culture at the bank, including employee engagement surveys, ratings on Glassdoor, mobile app reviews and net promoter scores.

“These should all be moving in a direction that validates your training program,” he said.


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