Synovus leans on multiple layers of training as key to success

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To boost its presence in affordable housing, Synovus Bank is devoting considerable resources to training its loan officers, according to its top mortgage executive.

Mary Beth Balzli, president and CEO of Synovus Bank Mortgage, pointed to affordable housing as a "very hot" issue, for which the Columbus, Ga.-headquartered bank has developed a team of specialists spread throughout its footprint in five Southern states and a selection of loan products designed for those customers.

"The first thing those team members need is a passion for working in this space," Balzli said, adding that they work closely with multiple managers, including their standard production-management team and other members of production leadership, as well as sales leaders who specialize in affordable housing.

"Besides originating mortgages in this space, the affordable housing team has responsibility to work within our communities to deliver financial literacy," Balzli said, adding they can sell other products, depending on the needs of customers. "There's tremendous opportunity and need throughout our footprint for such education, and team members may partner with nonprofits, the GSEs and local housing authorities."

The bank provides its loan officers with a robust suite of on-balance-sheet mortgage products as well as FHA, VA, USDA and other conforming products. The balance-sheet products include those designed for niche mortgage markets, such as physicians and affluent customers. For the latter, the mortgage bankers are stationed with the bank's wealth-management executives.

To sell those products, Synovus loan officers receive multiple layers of training on advising customers about what products are most appropriate for them. It starts with a "concierge, high-touch onboarding process" that includes a standard orientation at the corporate level, followed by a mortgage-unit orientation to introduce them to its processes and products.

"Once we send them out to the field and they're working with our bankers and customers, we have follow-up training where we actually send out Synovus mortgage trainers to their sites to work with them individually," Balzli said. The number of visits depends on the individual loan officers and how they digest information, she said, with the aim of providing consistent delivery of products and services.

To support the affordable housing team, the bank has recently run several marketing campaigns, such as offering free appraisals last quarter to first-time homebuyers that qualify for a loan. Its "You First" campaign in the first quarter offers "free appraisals to law enforcement, teachers, military personnel, first responders and nurses, with the idea being that for those who serve us, we are serving them," Balzli said.

A second area of attention is technology. Balzli said that Synovus extensively trains its loan officers and other mortgage staff to use it effectively. The bank implemented the Blend online mortgage application in 2018, and during that process it procured Xinnix, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in training mortgage lending staff.

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"At cost to the company, we put more than 90% over our mortgage origination team through the program," Balzli said, adding that the selection of courses depends on the employee's experience and knowledge base. "Based on their success, they could participate in additional courses with Xinnix," she said.

The training was supplemented with customer-service surveys providing feedback on where the banks' customer-facing team members, especially the loan originators, need to hone their skills sets. The mortgage trainers were then brought back repeatedly to reinforce new habits.

"It's one thing to offer the tools, and another to get the mortgage team to utilize them," Balzli said.

Loan officers began using Blend at the start of the year, and while still early on, she said, the bank has been pleased with the results.

"In recent dashboard reports we've seen 56% of applicants submit their applications at their convenience, so they're using the tool after normal business hours. And 40% are using a mobile device or tablet," she said. Balzli added she sees loan officers remaining essential to the mortgage process, since "you can't leave customers to answer their own questions or figure out the best product, when it's likely to be the biggest investment they're going to make in their lives."

She added that the bank is implementing the technology to streamline the process and take advantage of tools such as Fannie Mae's Day 1 Certainty, which uses data collected by third-party vendors to automate customer-data validations.

"Behind the scenes this is critical, because it allows our loan officers to be more consultative and work more closely with customers on actual solutions," Balzli said.

Most of Synovus' 155 mortgage loan originators are in bank branches through its footprint, and in a few instances in stand-alone offices that aim to expand the bank's presence in an existing market. Earlier this year, the bank acquired FCB Financial Holdings, a Florida bank whose call center has been integrated into Synovus' mortgage division to cover gaps.

"If a customer comes into a branch and we cover the footprint pretty well but we may not have a loan officer in the branch that day, it allows a branch banker to put the customer in contact with a mortgage originator," Balzli said.

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Digital mortgages Affordable housing Housing market Training Purchase First time home buyers Mortgage technology Synovus Financial Blend Fannie Mae
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