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Balancing technology without losing the human touch during COVID-19.

Over the past two months, bankers from Commerce Bank have listened to – and learned from – thousands of small business owners whose companies have been upended by the new coronavirus.

While each story is unique, their fears are universal. Can my business survive the pandemic? How will I pay my employees? What will the “new normal” mean to my business?

In the words of one business owner, whose spouse was diagnosed with COVID-19 on the very day state-wide school closures forced one of her occupational therapy (OT) businesses to shutter, “It is super petrifying. You run a business for 10 years. Your employees trust you, and suddenly you have nothing to give them.”

Indeed, the world can be a “super petrifying” place right now for many reasons. Yet this same business owner – like so many we talk to – said something else quite remarkable. She expressed hope after admitting her concerns.

Her reasons for hope were two-fold. First, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds from the Small Business Administration had allowed her to keep her eight-person OT staff on the payroll as they pivoted the business to a tele-therapy approach. Second, she no longer felt all alone. Her husband was recovering, and her Commerce bankers – who had worked through an early April weekend to help her submit her PPP funding application – had shown they had her back.

Those frantic early days of the pandemic reminded our bank of many things we’ve known all along:

1. Nimbleness matters.

During the first round of the PPP, Commerce processed nearly 30 years of SBA volume in just a few days. By flattening our organizational structure, Commerce quickly recruited hundreds of internal staff members – many now working remotely – to help with the PPP loan process, enabling the Bank to assist with the extraordinary demand of emergency funding. The same type of effort continues through the second round of funding and to date, we’ve secured over $1.5 billion in loan volume which has served over 7,000 customers and saved nearly 150,000 jobs by our estimation.

Like Commerce, the success of numerous other businesses also depends on their ability to quickly adapt. Commercial food services, for example, have been pivoting from serving wholesale customers to grocery stores by making changes in packaging and distribution. Healthcare providers are embracing telemedicine at unprecedented levels. Given the likelihood of economic starts and stops over the coming months, all small businesses should be thinking creatively and planning for the business pivots still ahead.

2. The “new normal” depends on technology.

Telehealth services, online education and countless other services behind new emerging business models are only possible because of dramatic advances in digital technologies. As bankers, we know this as well as anyone. The electronic payment systems available today make it possible for both businesses and consumers to make and receive payments, improve cash flow, manage investments and much more without ever meeting with a banker face-to-face or having to touch physical mail or money. But don’t take financial technology at face value; the real power of your payments and investment strategy comes from collaborating with experienced financial professionals – and the video meetings that keep the collaboration going without missing a beat.

To maintain customer loyalty, small businesses may need to add new point-of-sale technological capabilities – like Clover – that can help you build a digital presence, accommodate online ordering, manage gift card sales or other technologies that facilitates remote operation.

3. Customers don’t forget.

Practically every small business owner’s story includes a tale of those who helped make their lives easier during this difficult time -- and those who didn’t. When this crisis is over – and rest assured, it WILL be behind us some day – THIS is what people will remember: how they were treated by others. Our businesses will be remembered for how we treated the people we work with and serve.

Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned is how grateful people are for the opportunity to talk to a live human. Checking in to see how a customer is faring can mean a lot. It also helps avoid surprises and can lead to new opportunities.

Yes, technology and automation are critical to keeping the economy moving forward. But the only way to learn a business owner’s hopes and fears is through personal communication. In uncertain times, nothing beats a voice on the other end of the line or a face on your screen that says, “I understand. And I think I can help.”

That’s a lesson we can all practice every day.

At Commerce Bank, we stand ready to help your business face the challenges of COVID-19 head on, and whatever comes next -- whether you need financing to support your business or would like to explore payments and cash flow management technology, our knowledgeable team can get you started. Contact a representative to learn more about lending and payment solutions from Commerce Bank.

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