One client in his 90s learned to pay his tax bill using an ATM. Another aging customer, after not speaking to anyone for a few days, was happy to hear the friendly voice of a familiar branch teller on the line.
Others may have been walked through using a tablet to do some mobile banking for the first time.
All are examples of a recent outreach initiative by RBC checking in on clients who typically do their banking in person at a local branch, and for the most part, have been challenged to carry on doing so in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know our client base quite well,” says David Zyla, RBC branch manager at Pembina and Oakenwald.
“We have regular customers and we love seeing them, and we recognize it’s part of their socialization.”
But like so many financial institutions across Canada, the branch is working on reduced hours and pandemic protocols, including using a Plexiglas enclosed signature table for those clients who must come to the branch to sign documents.
Canadian Bankers Association (CBA) data show that about two-thirds of Canadians used in-branch banking over the course of the year, but only about one in 10 carries out most of their banking needs in person.
And it’s this segment that banks and credit unions are helping to learn how to use ATMs, tele-banking, or online and mobile banking.
Many who are still banking in-person are seniors, says Rick Lowes, vice-president of retirement strategy at RBC.
“Some, for example, may be still receiving and depositing physical pension cheques or paying their bills at the bank, and they haven’t yet had the opportunity to utilize, for example, direct deposit because they’re not using digital, banking.”
While some these clients are still venturing out to local branches, many have stayed away. And they are often worried about how they will continue their financial affairs under the cloud of the novel coronavirus.
Lowes adds those still visiting the bank are encouraged to sign up by branch advisers for services like direct deposit for cheques, or are taught to use ATMs and other forms of digital banking.
But much of the effort has involved reaching out to clients with a phone call from a familiar adviser.
“We started reaching out proactively when we understood the challenges people were facing,” Lowes says. “And certainly, some of the people we called were worried how they were going to pay their bills because they didn’t know how to access their branch safely.”
Fortunately, he adds, their concerns are being addressed, and these clients — who are not all seniors — are often pleasantly surprised how quickly they are learning the new tricks of technology to bank in the pandemic age.
Senior-focused initiatives by Canada’s banking industry to help aging clients get up to speed with technological change is not new. CBA has offered Your Money Seniors seminars in partnership with the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) for a few years now. Those efforts are largely driven by the recognition that retirees’ financial affairs are complex, involving estate planning as well as tax-efficient strategies for withdrawing retirement funds to maximize the longevity of savings.
What’s more is managing our personal finances has changed significantly in the last three decades, particularly day-to-day banking, which is now mostly done online.
Then again, it’s not as if all aging Canadians are being left behind, says Janet Fast, a professor of human ecology at the University of Alberta.
Fast is the co-director of research on aging, policies and practice research program for AGE-WELL network, a Canadians initiative looking how technology can enhance aging.
And financial technology — fintech, for short — certainly has the potential to improve the lives of aging individuals.
But she notes the common perception that seniors are technologically unsophisticated is misleading.
“It’s true to some extent that they use technology less, but age is not the primary risk factor,” says Fast, who has studied the issue.
Rather, socioeconomic status plays a much larger role. Individuals who have lower income, lower levels of education and who are more geographically isolated — often lacking internet access — are less likely to use technology to their benefit.
“And it happens that older people tend to have more of those risk factors.”
Yet when given the opportunity, and support, most people can and will learn new technologies if one key factor is present: the motivation to do so.
“The classic is the grandparent who learns how to use an iPad… to communicate with the grandchildren,” Fast says.
‘It’s those motivations that get people to learn what they need to learn if they can afford it… and I suspect what we will find at the end of this is that the pandemic was a serious motivator.”
That said, the FCAC — the federal agency protecting consumers — says seniors and others who are learning new ways of banking should also familiarize themselves with potential risks that can arise from the digital landscape.
“Unfortunately, fraudsters will prey on consumers’ fears and misinformation over the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Paco Francoli, spokesperson for the agency, in an email. “Some consumers may get phone calls, emails and texts regarding COVID-19.”
Protecting clients from fraud is also a concern for financial institutions now reaching out to clients who traditionally banked in person and are no longer able to do so.
“That’s why we make a concerted effort that the person calling is one clients have seen before so that they know and recognize the name and voice,” Zyla says. “It’s important that the assistance comes from their trusted adviser at their local branch.”
After all, even in the age of digital banking, a familiar face is in demand more than ever.