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Cultural shifts toward shortening the cycle of commerce have created new paradigms that challenge every industry to be faster, smarter and more customer-driven. The mortgage industry is no different, but, of course, our industry is more complex and nuanced than ever before. The complexities of the mortgage process from origination to fulfillment cannot be completely addressed through digital technologies — which makes the mortgage loan officer indispensable.

As the industry does a full court press toward the automated aggregation of documents from start to finish, it's loan officers who must keep the ball in play. They are translators and hand-holders for what is undoubtedly the most complex financial transaction consumers will ever have. The emotional component of the mortgage transaction cannot be underestimated: "It's a home, it's not a loan," should be every lender's mantra.

Interestingly enough, the importance of the LO in today's digitally driven world was underscored in TD Bank's most recent Mortgage Services Index data. In the survey, recent home buyers suggested that borrowers recognize the need for guidance and education when obtaining a loan. The results also showed nearly one-third of respondents reported needing the most help during initial stages of the loan process; and slightly fewer felt they needed guidance throughout the entire loan process. One-quarter said education and guidance was most vital during loan selection, and 17% said they needed more help during closing.

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Clearly, an LO's role as educator and expert is critical to successfully meeting a borrower's needs. Furthermore, while 62% of homeowners in the survey said they sought mortgage information online, the survey revealed that 64% of homebuyers applied for their loans in person and 43% obtained their loans from their primary banks. This seems to suggest that experienced loan officers are more necessary and relevant as trusted advisors today because of the digital information explosion, not in spite of it.

Therefore, recruiting and retaining loan officers is crucial to market share. The loan officers I speak to want to be a part of organizations that have invested in solid infrastructure to produce timely closings. They want to be supported by resources that help them keep the process moving and the pipeline full. To address these issues, today's brick and mortar banks must invest in people, training and internal communication programs that bring teams together. While consumers want access to rate applications and data online, they also want a live human being they can speak to, someone who can address issues without delay. True digital enablement means including the LO in the mix, and weaving his or her expertise throughout the borrower's experience to provide a seamless customer-oriented process. Whether through applications or tools that allow loan officers to respond to questions in real-time or internal programs that connect loan officers to operations staff, loan officers will succeed when they have more opportunities to build lasting relationships, and so will their banks.

Loan officers understand that a brand's financial strength directly relates to success. Having a compliance infrastructure is one obvious advantage, and having access to a competitive mortgage product suite is also crucial. But financial strength alone does not ensure that loan officers can gain access to a varied borrower mix. Building deliberate channels for engagement of prospects must occur. Our loan officers, for example, receive leads and referrals from our local stores and wealth relationship managers, which gives them the opportunity to form new relationships with centers of influence including regional builders, Realtors, attorneys, financial advisors and Certified Professional Accountants. Loan officers have a great value to the financial institution they represent because large portions bring in new-to-bank customers.

Additionally, a brand's financial strength should afford advantages in team sharing and collaboration. To compete for the best loan officers, banks must shed the silo mindset that often cripples large organizations. Giving loan officers a voice in the process can enhance operations and lead to improved communication and customer satisfaction. At TD, for example, we've fostered collaboration between operations and sales. We have joint business reviews, roundtables and cross-functional meetings that align our teams and enrich our business.

To compete and flourish in a rapidly changing digital space, brick and mortar banks must meet the expectations of loan officers and use the digital space to build and sustain the relationships that power their growth and that create overall business success.

Kevin Gillen is the Senior Vice President of Mortgage at TD Bank.