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Columbus Day weekend circled on calendar for KeyBank switch

KeyCorp will bring 1,000 of its employees – some from as far away as Alaska – to help workers at 300 First Niagara branches in four states make the transition to KeyBank.

Key has also staffed up its call centers with 350 additional employees ready to take customer calls as First Niagara customers switch to Key over Columbus Day weekend in early October.

These steps, among others taken during months of preparations, have Key officials feeling confident about converting First Niagara’s operations two weeks from now.

“By asset size, this is the largest bank merger since the financial crisis,” Beth E. Mooney, Key’s chairwoman and CEO, said this week during a visit to Key’s Northeast regional headquarters at Larkinville in Buffalo.

“So there is a significance and an importance for us to do it well that’s critical for our communities, our clients, our employees and our shareholders. But from an industry perspective, this is actually one that there’s a fair amount of eyes on us, as well.”

Cleveland-based Key completed its $4.1 billion deal for First Niagara Financial Group on Aug. 1. The acquisition will hit home for customers when accounts and branches change to Key.

Executives of Key say employees have been trained over the last several months to gear up for the change. And the reinforcements will help, too.

The 1,000 Key employees will fan out across 300 First Niagara branches converting to Key. The visiting employees, known as “buddies,” will work alongside branch employees to ensure that the switch to Key goes smoothly. Three of them will work at each of the locations, building on the training that branch employees have already received.

The 1,000 employees represent about 20 percent of Key’s branch-level workforce, said Christopher M. Gorman, Key’s merger-integration executive.

“That shows you kind of the teamwork and the commitment that we, as an organization, have to make things right,” Gorman said.

Key also bolstered its call center staffing to prepare for the integration.

“They’ve been in chairs since the end of August, they’re trained, so we will have a really robust call center experience,” Mooney said.

If wait times become an issue, the center has a callback feature so customers don’t have to wait on the line.

Along with taking questions from customers, bank officials have been talking with customers who are moving over to Key about the transition.

Gorman said it helps that Key kept the First Niagara branches’ workforce intact. “Once we could look (customers) in the eye and say, ‘We’re keeping all our client-facing people,’ you can just see sort of a sigh of relief,” he said.

Key will bring aboard more than a million new customers. If things go as the bank intends, those First Niagara customers won’t have much to do.

The bank’s goal for the integration is to have “the least amount of customer disruption you could find,” Mooney said.

“What we’re trying to do is create this experience where the next time you order checks, your box will come and it will be KeyBank checks. When your credit card expires and it’s time to replace, that’s when you get your KeyBank credit card. We’re trying to do this in a way where you don’t have to change because we changed.”

First Niagara branches converting to Key will close at 3 p.m. Oct. 7 and reopen for business the morning of Oct. 11, the day after Columbus Day, giving Key the long holiday weekend to complete the change. First Niagara online and mobile banking will no longer be available as of 6 p.m. Oct 7. Those customers will be able to start using Key’s online and mobile banking on the morning of Oct. 11.

Bank conversions can create anxieties and frustration for customers when problems arise. Some First Niagara customers whose accounts were switched to Northwest Bank this month complained about issues such as new debit cards they didn’t receive or couldn’t activate, and long wait times on the help line. Northwest executives, however, say the conversion went overwhelmingly well.

Northwest’s deal involved 18 branches in one market. The Key transition involves nearly 17 times as many First Niagara branches converting in four states.

Key officials described meticulous preparations, from leadership development seminars to branch-level training for workers.

“At the end of the day, this will be as good as (the customers’) experience,” Mooney said. “So our teams have worked very hard to come up with a process of integrating our two banks.”

The bank mailed a million “welcome kits” to First Niagara customers joining Key, explaining in simple terms what to expect, said Gary D. Quenneville, Key’s upstate New York regional executive.

“It should guide them through that week prior and the week after (the conversion),” Quenneville said. “There’s not a lot they need to do. We’ve just tried to encourage folks to read that welcome kit.”

Behind the scenes, Key has been testing the integration of the two banks’ systems. What makes this transition different from some, Gorman said, is that First Niagara was mainly using third-party vendors for its technology systems. Bank conversions typically involve linking two banks’ respective systems, which can make for a more complex process.

“What we did is, we converted the data from these third-party vendors onto Key systems that we run day in and day out,” Gorman said.


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