April 21, 2021 at 12:45PM

Digital banking has been substantially changing over the past year as the ongoing pandemic has significantly limited consumers’ financial options and forced many to embrace digital means. More than 161 million individuals in the U.S. are expected to use digital channels for banking by the end of 2021 — a promising development for customer convenience that is potentially burdensome for banks with outdated legacy back-end systems.

One financial institution (FI) not facing this challenge is 403-branch-strong People’s United Bank, according to its chief transformation officer, Ravi Vakacherla. People’s United faced the same surge in digital banking activity as FIs around the world but worked to seamlessly adapt to the rapidly changing digital-first financial paradigm through diligent back-end system improvements.

“We always had a plan for digitization and improving our digital, online and mobile capabilities, but what we have done is basically just accelerated those things,” Vakacherla said. “[Back-end improvements] were always the plan; we just moved them at super speed.”

In a recent interview with PYMNTS, Vakacherla detailed the challenges the pandemic brought on — including a surge in digital banking and employees working from home — as well as back-end improvements like robotic process automation that were necessary to its smooth transition.

How The Pandemic Changed Banking

Customers flocked to digital banking in record numbers as the pandemic drove many to avoid in-person interactions. A sizable minority still wanted face-to-face interactions with bank staff for more complicated procedures like loan applications or account openings, however. Ensuring these customers could still be provided for was a top priority to People’s United.

“When we closed all the branches, we ensured that every branch had at least one station with remote setup like Zoom or some other teleconferencing app,” Vakacherla said. “We also had to make sure that we had branch locators available for customers, ensuring that the new hours were all up to date and accurate.”

Another major challenge that People’s United and many other businesses in the banking industry faced was how to navigate the majority of staff beginning to work from home. This is a much simpler operation for other businesses with fewer customer-facing staff, but banks had to ensure that staff members were still available to customers even if they were working from home and that sensitive financial information would remain secure.

“The first thing we did was make sure all of our employees are remote-enabled, including our contact center employees, operations, back-office staff and the branch employees — everybody was home for a while,” he said. “Some people have in-home internet connectivity issues; some people are using Mac devices to connect to the bank, and others like to use PCs. Our management group had to update some of the technologies that we had in place for remote security and update our guidelines for remote review and secure message interactions.”

Meeting all the challenges of the pandemic required extensive back-end improvements, but these upgrades were fortunately in the works long before the pandemic was declared in the U.S.

How The Back End Caught Up To The New Normal

The key driver of People’s United’s back-end improvements was robotic process automation, a system that involves artificial intelligence (AI) performing rote tasks that could otherwise eat away at the time of a human employee. This system was in the works prior to the pandemic, but the increased digital engagement allowed the bank to identify the processes in most need of automation.

“When the interaction flow changed, we looked at which use cases were taking a long time and we put automations in place,” said Vakacherla. “We took significant advantage of our already-scaled robotic process automation program, and we also deployed a process optimization team that would look at the things that were impacting the customers most or causing the most pain to our employees, our contact center agents or others.”

These enhancements allowed People’s United to cope with the surge in digital banking that all banks faced but that many struggled to deal with. Those that could harness already-existing automated processes and scale them up in light of the increased volume were, therefore, more prepared to handle the influx.

“We had something like [a] 76 percent increase in online and 67 percent increase in mobile activity,” Vakacherla said. “We needed to make sure the capabilities on the digital side kept pace and that all the back-office administrative capabilities that responded to the increase understood the difference between these two channels and best served the customers.”

This increased digital engagement is likely to continue even in a post-pandemic world, meaning that banks investing in these back-end improvements will be experiencing the benefits long into the future. Those that fail to make these investments could be put on the back foot for years.

How Robotic Process Automation Helped People’s United Bank Meet Increased Digital Volumes …

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