Originally published in New Jersey Bankers Magazine

By Gwendelyn Fisher, AVP/Marketing Manager, First Bank

Remember, as a child, thinking about what 2020 would be like –  Do visions of “The Jetsons” come to mind?

Some of us pictured traveling to Mars, robots in every home, with flying cars and personal jetpacks to get us to our destinations. We got Mars and the robots right to a certain degree, but 2020 definitely threw us a most unexpected curveball – a pandemic. The world nearly came to a halt and we all took a moment to gather our wits. Being a resourceful species, we had to figure out what to do next in order to adapt.

Community Banks didn’t rest for a moment longer; they became more tuned-in than ever. Home dining room tables and spare rooms were turned into office space and virtual meeting rooms for back office employees. When the SBA launched PPP loans, the branches and lenders took application after application, helping business customers through what might have been one of the most fearful moments of their business’s history. The loan processing staff literally worked around the clock on these applications to make sure customers had the best chance of receiving loans to keep their businesses afloat.

There is a reason why Community Banks are so special – they remember their roots in times of both prosperity and crisis, and act to help the communities and populations they serve.  For over a year, First Bank’s amazing branch staff operated in an alternative style to do just that. Branch transactions were handled resourcefully through drive-up tubes or curbside service. The staff helped to carry out the banking necessities that our customers and communities needed, and provided that familiar face (perhaps from across the parking lot) that helped to reinforce the message, “We’re going to make it through this together!”.

Carol Monaghan, who has been the manager of First Bank’s Somerset Branch for 8 years, reflected on this time, saying “Closing the lobbies was tough, but we knew that adapting on the fly was key to continuing the excellent service our customers are accustomed to. We prepared ahead of time for customers who called to make appointments, using the drive-thru and curbside service to handle transactions. We made sure to decorate our drive-thru window to keep things cheerful and hopefully give our customers another reason to smile.”  The experience was different for Delanco Manager Derrick Futch, who joined First Bank in June 2020 – right amidst the pandemic. “It was a challenge having the lobby closed and have branch hours adjusted, but we did everything we could to help our customers – curbside banking, extra emails & phone calls, and even house calls to customers in extreme situations.”

As the Northern Jersey Branch Area Manager, Denise Goetting was able to see the benefits of keeping a positive outlook and going the extra mile in customer service across her branch footprint. “The bank definitely made an effort to calm our customers’ nerves and anxiety about what was happening and the uncertainty of what was to come. We listened to their stories with empathy, helped them sort through misinformation they may have heard, and shared honest feedback and solutions. As a bank, we set out to be leaders in customer service, and I feel we did just that.”

Once lobbies were fully reopened in June of 2021, branch staff were ready to welcome customers into the buildings again with open arms. Futch recalls, “Some of my staff, myself included, started working for First Bank during the pandemic, so opening the lobbies again has given us an opportunity to meet some customers for the first time. It’s really been very positive, and our customers are happy to be able to visit inside again.” Cranbury Branch Manager Jason Koenigsberg echoed the same customer sentiment. “While our lobbies were closed, customers appreciated the flexibility and conveniences we offered, but they were even happier to be able to come in again and visit face-to-face as they did pre-pandemic.”

For lenders, it was a similar story. Business was conducted via phone or video conference, while signatures and loan documents were collected electronically. Brett Lawrence, a Commercial Lending Relationship Manager in the South Jersey region of First Bank, emphasized the importance of maintaining contact and communicating with customers. “Everything was so uncertain in the beginning, businesses and communities were obviously eager to return to normalcy,” said Lawrence. “We carefully assessed our clients’ situations and worked tirelessly to uncover any immediate needs while staying on top of the ever-changing processes around PPP. It was definitely a challenge, with many of us working nights and weekends to get things done, but ultimately we realized that we were creating lifelong clients through our efforts.” Brett finished by saying, “It’s easy to have a relationship when things are good; adversity shows the true character of the connection. First Bank’s tagline really says it all: Personal Bankers. Real Relationships.

As it turns out, we didn’t need jetpacks or flying cars to make 2020 something special – the power of real relationships and community were the keystones that held us all together. And that is something that even the most futuristic robot can never replace.