Transaction banking is known for its deep and long-lasting relationships, built up over years of close collaboration with clients. But how has an industry based on in-person meetings and large industry conferences adapted to a virtual environment? 

Time was when entering the virtual world required the donning of a special helmet and enduring a disorienting experience in shaky 3D. But more than a year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the virtual world has come to mean much more.

Initially, it seemed the pandemic would be a temporary disruption, followed by a return to business as usual. But it soon became apparent that longer-term plans were required. Just over a month after the WHO declaration, Swift announced that its annual community conference Sibos (which was due to be held in Boston in October 2020) would be switched to a virtual event.

The Bankers Association for Finance and Trade followed suit, announcing in July that all of its scheduled in-person events through to January 2021 would be offered as virtual events. Many other events in the transaction banking world were either cancelled or went online.

The social interactions outside of a formal agenda are sometimes where we learn the most about each other and our respective businesses

Michael Lim, ANZ

For relationship banks, the loss of in-person ‘pressing the flesh’ has been a significant challenge. Sibos, for example, attracts 6000–7000 delegates, with relationship-building opportunities aplenty. How have banks maintained existing relationships and built new ones when the usual round of meetings, hospitality and conference networking opportunities have been unavailable?

“The networking aspect of industry events is paramount,” says Chafic Haddad, Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) sales head for financial institutions, treasury and trade solutions at Citi. “If you are working on a transaction, you can often see that through while at an event. The downtime is also irreplaceable in the virtual world. That is when you get to know a client personally, bond with them and develop trust. Industry events also provide the opportunity to meet new connections and grow opportunities. More broadly, you can also rub shoulders with competitors and gain good market intelligence.”

stephanie wolf

Stephanie Wolf, BofA

Stephanie Wolf, head of global financial institutions, governments and business banking, global transaction services at Bank of America (BofA), says the in-person meetings the bank usually schedules at the conferences and “even the random meetings you have from walking the conference hall to visit vendors can lead to great conversations. Without those experiences, virtual conferences are unfortunately limited for networking or prospecting.”

Michael Lim, head of transaction banking for financial institutions at ANZ Institutional, agrees. “Virtual meetings have been useful, but can never really replace personal contact,” he says. “The conversations that take place before and after meetings without an audience, the social interactions outside of a formal agenda are sometimes where we learn the most about each other and our respective businesses.”

Adjusting to a new normal

The transaction banking industry is nothing if not adaptable, and after initial concerns, some positive aspects of the virtual world have emerged. “Initially, it seemed the pandemic would last for only a couple of months, then we could continue as we were,” says Marion Reuter, regional head of transaction banking sales for Europe at Standard Chartered. “One year later, we realise this has changed the way we work and interact, and it has been a lesson for banks and also for conference providers.”

Initially, some questioned why anyone would do a virtual event when a conference is mostly about networking, she adds. “Despite some technical hiccups early on, I think the industry was surprised at the positives that have come out of it. We have been able, for example, to conduct workshops with hundreds of participants from all over the world in attendance; that couldn’t be matched in a physical conference.”

This is a point also made by Graham Ray, managing director and global head of sales and relationship management for financial intermediaries at BNP Paribas Securities Services. “One of the positives of virtual conferences, from a relationship bank point of view, is that you can widen the level of participation. I could release more people to attend these events, including people not directly in relationship management, but in the product and operations lines. This gave people a greater level of insight into what is going on in the industry and what our clients are experiencing.”

A drawback of virtual conferences, however, is the lack of spontaneity and personal engagement that comes from “bumping into someone at an in-person event”, he says. In response, the bank has used digital technology more, bringing together clients and continuing engagement. For example, at the Network Forum, BNP Paribas set up breakout groups which helped to facilitate networking. “But we are looking forward to getting back to that spontaneous element of meeting someone at an event,” says Mr Ray.

Advanced communications

The sophistication of videoconferencing technology has also helped firms to develop a more natural and interactive virtual experience. Liz Lumley, director at marketing and events company VC Innovations, says the company’s focus was on ensuring engagement in a virtual environment. They did this via the Hopin platform, which includes tools for ticketing, registration, ‘limitless’ event rooms, an expo hall, and chat and networking facilities.

The company was able to recreate the atmosphere at its own events within a virtual environment. This included person-to-person contact and the ability to “work the virtual room”. While many missed the spontaneity of physical events, Ms Lumley says it can be replicated. “You do have to put some work into it, but delegates at a virtual event can see who else is there and the platform does give us the ability to connect in a lot of different ways.”

Current platforms are the culmination of nearly 100 years of the development of videoconferencing and communications technology. In 1927, Bell Labs in the US connected officials in Washington DC with the president of AT&T in New York City via a two-way audio connection and one-way video connection. During the 1980s, the first commercial group video conferencing system was developed by Compression Labs — it cost $250,000, with each call costing $1000 per hour. The hardware took up an entire room. In those pioneering days, the technology was heralded as the replacement for international business travel. Today, someone can participate in a videoconference using just their smartphone.

“Technology — both our own and from third parties — has been at the forefront of how we have engaged with clients during the pandemic,” says BNP Paribas’s Mr Ray. “From May 2020, we used videoconferencing to bring together a network of individuals within the bank to engage with clients. This made the client feel a part of the internal engagement. We also used digital technology for requests for proposals and for virtual due diligence.”

Being human

Conversely, while virtual engagement with clients would seem to lack that ‘human’ touch, banks have reported a strengthening in existing relationships. “I think my team’s experience in general has been that the lockdown has brought everyone to a more human level of interaction. We’re seeing people at home with their families having to juggle their personal and professional lives, and I think there’s more empathy and a closeness that has entered our client relationships as a result,” says Tristan Attenborough, wholesale payments EMEA head of corporate sales at JPMorgan. “Our team is bonding with clients over shared fitness goals, home-schooling techniques and so on.”

Mr Lim says ANZ has found that its existing relationships have become stronger during the pandemic. “Not because of virtual meetings and webinars, but rather as a result of the shared adversity. Meetings have become much more personal and human with kids playing or home schooling in the background, dogs barking or the neighbours choosing an inopportune time to use those power tools. We have so many of these shared stories with our customers now that it has really strengthened and humanised our relationships.”

Mr Ray adds: “The personal factor is important in any client relationship and during the pandemic we all, to some extent, brought our personal life into our professional life as we worked from home and saw each other’s surroundings. I also noticed that there were many more people calling each other spontaneously to enquire about their wellbeing.”

We’re seeing people at home with their families having to juggle their personal and professional lives, and I think there’s more empathy

Tristan Attenborough, JPMorgan

During the virtual Sibos week in October, BNP Paribas conducted its regular event for corporate clients. The videoconference featured an address by the bank’s general manager, which was followed by personal networking in breakout rooms. “Attendees were able to discuss business and socialise. It was interesting to watch how quickly business discussions turned into personal discussions,” says Mr Ray.

The “human factor” has become more prevalent during the crisis, he adds, possibly because the pandemic has been a global event and “we have all felt part of the same problem. It has stimulated common ground for people to start a dialogue and I think we shouldn’t lose the benefits of personal dialogue in our business engagements going forward,” he adds.

Digital closeness

During the pandemic, BNP Paribas has conducted “many more” bilateral talks with clients. In the physical world, client engagement would often involve several people around a table, but in the virtual world this engagement has become more intimate and on a one-to-one basis. “I think this has helped to speed up business development and gain traction with clients,” Mr Ray says.

Ms Wolf says BofA and its clients “have been in this together and I believe our relationships are stronger for it. We have all had to adapt to suboptimal environments and make our experiences as impactful as possible.” In-person or face-to-face meetings are “still some way off”, she believes, so pitches and strategy sessions are all conducted via video.

“However, being inches away from each other on the screen, today’s version of face-to-face meetings are in some ways more face-to-face than ever,” she adds. When it comes to new clients or prospects, BofA has “returned to the old-fashioned way of simply picking up the phone and making calls. People are open to that and welcome being asked about their business. It gives us a chance to find out if there are any pain points or challenges. We have all grown used to new ways of seeing and speaking to each other.”

Michael Lim

Michael Lim, ANZ

Ms Reuter says while virtual conferences missed the social aspect of industry events, as the chat facilities improve on videoconferencing platforms and people are more familiar with using chat, this is changing. “At Standard Chartered, we feel we have a better platform now to position ourselves with workshops and topical discussions to reach out to clients and prospects,” she adds.

Creating a client relationship from scratch virtually, including the pitch and initial implementation, presents some unique challenges, says Mr Attenborough. “We’ve managed to address those in part by hosting a range of virtual events — both on specific treasury management topics, as well as social things like wine tastings. Something that has worked really well for us is bringing clients old and new into sessions with their peers, rather than just having us presenting to them — it fosters more of the sense of community you might get at a conference.”

Greater efficiency

There is also an immediacy to communication now that means the bank can schedule meetings more efficiently — the travel and logistics elements are removed, so it is easy to just hop onto a quick video call, bring a coffee and catch up, he says. “There are new skills involved too, and we’ve seen individuals who have been working in this field for decades having to learn new to use brand new communications tools to adapt to the new environment.”

Citi’s Mr Haddad agrees that setting up virtual meetings is easier than trying to arrange in-person meetings. “In order to remain engaged with clients, who often felt disconnected and uncertain during the pandemic, we established a number of virtual thought leadership programmes, inviting industry experts on various subjects including Brexit, the US elections and the vaccine rollout, for example. We wanted to keep clients informed and connected, and it was a good alternative in the absence of being able to go out and see a client.”

While the pandemic has not changed the way ANZ thinks about client relationships, says Mr Lim, it has highlighted which relationships share the same values as the bank, with the need to work through short-term liquidity requirements, increasing credit risks, logistical issues associated with lockdowns and business continuity plans. “The quality of relationship has become clearer with open dialogue, information sharing, mutual patience and support, working together to resolve issues. We have prioritised the clients that operated in this manner and now have stronger partnerships.”

A hybrid future

Most of the transaction bankers spoken to by The Banker believe physical conferences will return, but they may take on a different form. People miss the in-person interaction and are looking forward to in-person conferences being possible again, says Mr Attenborough. He believes a hybrid model, in which in-person and virtual sessions co-exist, is “the logical way forward”. Ms Wolf adds: “There’s no doubt that virtual meetings have proven to be effective in many ways and I see them being a powerful augmentation to in-person meetings, enabling connectivity to many more people without the time or expense involved in travelling.”

Ms Reuter says while the industry waits for the return to physical meetings, she believes some meetings can remain virtual. “There’ll be some questions asked in the industry about whether we always have to get on a plane and fly people to different locations. I think the same thing will happen with the industry conferences — they’ll be a hybrid of in-person and video, including panel discussions, that combine the two.”

For Mr Haddad, one thing is certain: “I think no one will take travel or face-to-face meetings for granted anymore.”


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