By Omobayo Azeez
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of bank customers in Nigeria and in abroad have been forced to remain at home due to restrictions and lockdowns orders adopted as a potent measure against further spread of the virus.
This measure, which did not exclude commercial institutions, particularly banks, threw up the challenge of how customers can still have access to banking services despite the lockdown that has put banking halls under key and locks across the country.
Throughout the period that the banks were not active at their various branches however, banking transactions did not cease, as customers continued to leverage on different technology-driven alternative channels provided by their banks to meet their daily needs as far as banking is concerned.
Recall that in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown that followed it, the MINISTER OF FINANCE, BUDGET AND PLANNING and the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria obtained presidential approval to permit critical financial services to function during this period.
CBN further urged the general public to limit their use of cash and avail themselves of alternative payment channels such as mobile banking, internet banking, mobile money, Point of Sale (POS), and USSD banking; assuring that financial institutions will remain operational during this period and therefore people should guard against panic withdrawals from their banks.
Meanwhile, industry observers have paid particular attention to how FirstBank has been able to meet this demands and serve its customers more seamlessly during the crisis period by putting banking services in their palm through its *894# Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) code, alongside other channels such as its mobile App and internet banking.
The reason for the special interest taken in the bank can is not farfetched, given that FirstBank is a Tier-1 bank and indeed a pacesetter with the highest number of bank customers in country.
Adesola Adedutan, the chief executive officer of FirstBank was, however, prompt to dispel any fear of imminent breakdown in operation due to COVID-19 when he assured that “COVID-19 will not slow us down.
“These are unprecedented times. We therefore promise that now more than ever we will remain steadfast, showing up for all Nigerians; we would always be there for you.
“As I reflect on the last two weeks, I am comforted by the resilience of our people. I look back at our commitment and contribution to keeping commerce going and enabling businesses.”
Among other banking channels provided by first bank to bring fast and smart banking closer to its people as they cannot approach the bank for their various transactions, the *894# arrangement seems to have democratized banking with ease and in exchange for nothing from the customers.
This seems to have absolutely resonated with the new normal of the period and despite the lockdown, the USSD channel, which only requires access to a SIM card registered for alerts by a firstbank customer and a feature phone, has so far recorded impressive usage, according to the bank.
In his appraisal of the *894# USSD channel, Chuma Ezirim, FirstBank’s group executive, e-Business & Retail Products, said that as at April, more than 9.5 million customers have activated the USSD on their various accounts.
“This is in clear demonstration of its acknowledged leadership in electronic Banking. The Bank’s USSD banking service, launched in January 2015, is an easy to use, convenient, fast, user-friendly mobile banking channel through which various banking activities are carried out on a mobile phone – across the four major GSM network operators in the country – without the use of the internet,” he said.
According to Ezirim, customers are able to enjoy a wide range of banking services using the Bank’s *894# USSD banking.
He added that the services include data and airtime top-up for self and third-party individuals, quick balance enquiry, fund transfers, BVN enquiry, BVN linkage, mini-statement, account number enquiry, account opening, merchant payment and firstadvance loan service.
He further explained that the FirstAdvance loan service enables salary earners take a loan up to 50 per cent of their monthly salary.
“At FirstBank,” Ezirim said, “we are excited about the impact our innovative solutions are making in the Nigerian payment landscape.
“Our *894# USSD banking has been a viable platform through which we take our banking services to the doorstep of our customers, right on the palm of their hands, without the limitation of an internet connection.
“We remain committed to creating various avenues to enable Nigerians carry out various financial activities conveniently, safely and securely anytime, anywhere in Nigeria.”
Meanwhile, the drastic change in banking pattern engendered by Coronavirus is not anything to disappear soon, according to analysts who hold that the pandemic has come to change banking as an industry for ever.
These expectations are putting digital banking system at its system and luckily for existing and potential FirstBank customers, the financial institution has continued to invest handsomely on provision and strengthening of digitally driven platforms.
Just recently, this manifested again when it announced that it has reinforced its technology infrastructure to enable anyone in the country open a FirstBank account through their mobile phones, without visiting any of its branches nationwide.
The investment in the Bank’s mobile banking infrastructure is in furtherance of the need to deepen financial inclusion in the country, enabling account opening to be carried out on its *894# USSD banking, FirstMobile, its website as well as the Bank’s staff, through the Direct Sales Executive (DSE) application installed on their mobile phone, ATMs and the bank’s over 55,000 FirstMonie Agents spread across the country.
Commenting on the development, Ezirim said: “beyond opening an account in any of our over 700 branches, we are delighted with the investments at reinventing our business processes over the years, especially with the use of technology.
“This has been critical to staying relevant in the industry for over 126 years and being the financial partner of the first choice to all our customers and Nigerians, irrespective of where they are.”