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So far, RBC has processed more than 250,000 requests for deferrals of payments on mortgages and other loans.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Royal Bank of Canada has retrained hundreds of staff to build custom financial relief plans for personal banking clients who are in the most severe financial stress caused by the economic fallout from the new coronavirus.

In mid-March, the country’s largest banks hastily rolled out programs allowing customers who have lost jobs or income to defer payments on mortgages and other loans for up to six months. They built self-serve online portals to take applications for relief to automate as many approvals as possible. So far, RBC has processed more than 250,000 requests for deferrals.

But the bank is now turning its attention to its next phase of customer support. Over the past two weeks, RBC has retrained around 200 staff who normally adjudicate new loan applications and redeployed them to help create tailored relief plans for clients who have been hit hardest by the crisis. The plans are designed to be a second tier of support for clients who were already struggling when the COVID-19 crisis struck, or who now expect their financial hardships could last longer than six months.

The individual plans are akin to what banks offer in normal times, on a much smaller scale, to clients suffering from job losses, illnesses, more regional economic downturns or natural disasters. Measures made available include refinancing and restructuring debt, extending mortgage amortization periods or granting relief on interest rates. “That requires a more skilled adviser, it requires more time, more information from the client," Neil McLaughlin, head of personal and commercial banking, said.

The volume of requests for relief that flooded in to RBC as the coronavirus crisis has escalated has “started to level off," he said, but RBC expects another surge to come. “I do think there will be another wave of clients looking to come back based on the duration of the lockdown and the social-distancing measures,” he said.

“Where do we go from here? That’s something I think we’re probably still working through," he added. "What does it feel like two months from now and three months from now?”

As economic conditions deteriorate and job losses mount, RBC has been reaching out to more clients before they call the bank for help. Those calls are up 40 per cent compared with a year ago. And the bank is starting to use artificial intelligence and to mine data from call centres to flag clients with dwindling cash flows before the problem becomes acute. “There’s an awful lot of data in there,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “It’s about giving [account managers] a really curated view of who’s in the most distress."

Efforts to roll out relief programs have been complicated by the large numbers of bank staff working remotely, and extra measures put in place at branches that have stayed open to meet health guidelines. About 77,000 of RBC’s 85,000 employees are working from home. But 9,000 staff are still in branches, where the number of clients entering is controlled, plexiglass screens are being installed, and deep cleaning is happening twice as often.

Another 5,600 staff from call centres and core operations are working remotely, but about 15 per cent of staff in those areas still have to come in to work. Two RBC employees tested positive for COVID-19 at the bank’s Meadowvale office building in Mississauga, but Mr. McLaughlin said the bank has learned lessons from that experience.

“On the operations side, we needed to make sure we could thin out those environments," he said. “It did underscore that social distancing is going to be part of the solution and we needed to pull that lever.”

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