As technology and industries have made doing business over digital mediums more and more possible, fewer and fewer reasons appear for one to ever need to leave home. You can have food and groceries delivered to your door and download all of the entertainment – movies, shows, games – that you could ever need to fill your time. You can now pay for it all by working remotely as well. All of this change has been driven as much by necessity as by convenience, thanks largely to the past two years of lockdowns and quarantining.
All social commentary aside, digital methods of working, buying and selling have become firmly entrenched, but not at the expense of actual in-person transactions and meeting places. While the pandemic expanded digital options, its end revealed just how eager people were to get back to in-person interaction again. All people, businesses and industries will have to reckon with this versatile new reality and learn to balance the digital and the physical. Along those lines, Batesville-based Citizens Bank has developed its own approach to striking virtual with actual, by focusing not on digital or in-person banking, per se, but on using whatever techniques are best for the bank’s overall mission – serving its community.
Citizens Bank is a community bank founded in 1953 with the goal of helping people. All of Citizens’ current locations are still found within the state of Arkansas. The mission statement of Citizens Bank is simple: “People First,” and the bank’s business practices, as well as the people who work there, reflect that emphasis. AMP recently spoke with three leading figures at the institution about how Citizens is managing the new status quo: Little Rock City President Bill Yee; Regional President Vernon Scott; and Chief Retail Officer Sarah Lane. Though from different backgrounds, all three shared that the major draw to Citizens Bank was the people.
Lane was born and raised in Little Rock and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She came to banking simply because she was looking for a job that wasn’t at a restaurant or mall, and found a part-time job as a teller at Metropolitan bank, which no longer exists. Lane worked her way up, and through mergers and acquisitions, ended up at other banks, where she undertook work with the FDIC and learned a great deal about how banking is done in other states.
“But I really missed community banking,” she said, “and I really like the smaller, family feel, the ability to make decisions quickly and easily, and [feeling] a little bit closer to the customer, and where we all really know each other.” Citizens Bank provided the perfect fit for Lane.
Scott, a native of Batesville with a background in agriculture, learned a great deal about business from his grandfather. He attended Mississippi State for agribusiness, but after some hands-on experience with farming, he realized he enjoyed the business side more than the farming side. He subsequently transferred to the University of Arkansas, finished his degree and like Lane, found a job as a teller at One Bank, which also no longer exists. Scott had not anticipated the field would become his life-long career. He spent much of his career as an individual contributor, but Citizens gave him a further opportunity to enter management and build his own team.
“For me, hands down, it was the people who were also going to be part of that,” Scott explained. “The team that Adam [that is, Citizens’ president and CEO, Adam Mitchell] had put together that we were going to be working are with directly, they were some of the most talented bankers and best people in general that I had ever had the privilege to work with.”
Yee is from Lake Village, Arkansas, where his family owned a grocery store. He worked there from age six, checking out and bagging groceries and making daily deposits for the business. Since his was a small, rural community, Yee’s family would extend credit to their customers, who often would not be able to afford their groceries until getting paid from their jobs. In that way, banking has become a natural extension of what he has been doing since early childhood. Yee eventually obtained a job as a bank examiner, which gave him an opportune chance to learn more about the banking world. He recently transitioned to Citizens from a long career at Simmons Bank.
“What brought me to Citizens Bank? That’s an easy answer. It’s really the people,” Yee said. “I truly believe in our G.R.E.A.T. customer service standards: ‘Greet everyone with a smile, Respond with Urgency, Empower our associates, Always go the extra mile, and Thank everyone for their business.”
Digital services do come with a variety of benefits for both business and customer. As Scott explained, going digital greatly reduces the entry cost for banking, allowing those who would not otherwise be able to afford the initial investment of building a brick-and-mortar location to enter the competition. A somewhat lower level of regulation for some online services and “fintechs,” or financial technologies, also allows the fintechs to punch above their weight in comparison with larger traditional banks. But despite those many advantages, online banking simply isn’t a great fit for everyone.
“The younger demographic feels they could do everything from their phone; that would be great, and I think a lot of banks are responding to that,” Scott explained. “The older demographic has been hesitant to make that move, but they were forced to during COVID, and they’re not coming back. They enjoy it now.” Nevertheless, there is still a need for brick-and-mortar locations.
“We acknowledge that there is a need for physical presence for our customers,” Lane said. “We have customers who still want to come in; we have customers who still deal in cash and need that and want that, and their industries require that.
“So, we need to have physical locations to support our customer base. What we don’t need is a physical location on every corner. [For example,] we won’t have ten locations in Little Rock, where we believe that two will support our customer base, and lean heavily into the digital as well because that is what our customers are asking for.”
Digital options lie at the forefront of the bank’s growth, allowing them to expand into new areas without that substantial up-front investment. Citizens does not follow the philosophy of “Build it and they will come.” If the company builds a brick-and-mortar location, that means it has already seen growth in the area and is working to support it, rather than building a location and hoping that growth follows after.
“You will see us continue to expand on brick and mortar – primarily in growth markets where we intend to expand,” Scott said. “But we would go in with, maybe, a loan production office, as opposed to a full-service branch, then develop the market and then expand the services once we have that market developed.”
Whether customers do business with Citizens online or in person, both are tailored to fit the customer’s needs in said formats. The bank’s brick-and-mortar locations are built to look and feel different from the average bank, going for a modern aesthetic and a structure that moves away from the traditional teller line – which has been built around a physical barrier that creates a separation between the customer and the bank. Citizens’ new model is based on a pod system, made up of smaller individual stations with no barriers, allowing customers and staff to move more freely throughout the space. Lane explained that customers are looking less for a place where they can just deposit and withdraw money, and more for a partnership with someone who can guide and advise them. This pod system provides a greater level of privacy and makes it easier to connect than when standing in a line.
“A lot of our locations have community rooms as well,” Lane said, “especially in our markets in Arkadelphia, Monticello and Batesville. These are places that we open to nonprofits and the community to utilize, so it truly is a room for our communities. A lot of smaller towns don’t have meeting places that they can come to and have their local meetings.”
During the pandemic, Citizens actually partnered with a local pharmacy to repurpose some of these community rooms to be used as vaccination clinics. That ability to make its locations into more than just bank branches is a major part of the overall strategy.
On the digital side of things, Citizens Bank has invested heavily into creating user-friendly tools for both businesses and individual customers, including a new website, online banking, a mobile app and a digital chat. Lane noted that the chat feature was particularly successful, allowing customers to interact with Citizens in a way that accommodates their schedules. If a customer doesn’t have time to ask a question until midnight, they can ask it via the chat and receive an answer the next morning. Almost anything that does not strictly require in-person banking can be done online: The bank even has virtual vaults that can be used to immediately receive credit for cash, which Citizens will later pick up.
“Where we differ from other banks,” Yee said, “is that we are really, truly focused on the state of Arkansas. We want to make sure that we do what we do well, and we focus on giving back and taking care of the communities that we’re in. We’re not in other states right now, and our true focus is just taking care of Arkansas.”