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BMO Harris cutting face-to-face mortgage lenders

Paul Gores Milwaukee Journal Sentinel USA TODAY NETWORK - WISCONSIN

BMO Harris Bank is eliminating most mortgage loan officers who meet customers face to face and now directs people who want to buy a house or refinance to its centralized mortgage call center.

The Chicago-based bank, still one of the largest in Wisconsin by virtue of its 2011 acquisition of M& I Bank, said the move — and a new online mortgage application platform coming soon — reflects changing customer behavior trends and actually offers time and ease benefits for mortgage applicants.

“Things evolve, and we have to change with the times and with our customers’ wants and needs,” said BMO Harris spokesman Patrick O’Herlihy.

BMO Harris is not saying how many people have lost their jobs in the move. But a document sent to a laid-off employee shows the switch to call center mortgage applications is eliminating almost 170 positions in the bank’s eightstate market territory.

Overall in the banking industry, visits to branches — including consumers coming in for mortgage applications — are declining, said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for the personal finance website Bankrate.com. That means fewer mortgage loan officers are needed in branches, he said.

“It’s changing because they’re not being utilized. We don’t use horses and buggies much either, because we have cars. The growth in mortgage applications has been in the digital realm,” McBride said. “Use of call centers or video conferencing centralizes the taking of applications and provides a human interaction in a more efficient manner than stationing someone in a branch.”

Still, the move to a centralized mortgage banking team at a call center could seem uninviting to some consumers.

For example, use of a call center might seem uninviting to new customers who want to talk in person about their first home loan, said bank analyst Jon Bruss. After their first mortgage, however, borrowers typically become increasingly comfortable working with a bank over the phone or online, he added.

“I think that for the person who is going to be a first-time homeowner and is not well-acquainted with the whole process, a face-to-face (interaction) is valuable,” said Bruss, chief executive of Fortress Partners Capital Management Ltd. in Hartland. “But beyond that, I don’t think it’s necessarily important.”

Some other large banks doing business in Wisconsin, such as Associated Bank and U.S. Bank, still offer mortgage applicants an in-person meeting with a loan officer if they wish, and most smaller community banks do too.

But as financial technology improves and spreads and consumers become more attuned to it, there’s little doubt that more mortgages are taking place without the applicants first shaking hands with a loan officer.

O’Herlihy said BMO Harris’ switch to a call center isn’t less accommodating to consumers.

“From our perspective, there’s some benefits for the consumer,” O’Herlihy said. “You’re going to get immediate

See BMO, Page 4D

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