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Small Banks Make Change in Layout, Job Descriptions

February 4, 2011

Banks and their employees are branching out in new directions. Because more people are doing their banking online, financial institutions are opening smaller branches that leverage staff and technology in new ways.

Teller lines and drive-up windows are disappearing, replaced by consultation areas and two-way video feeds in the drive-thru lanes. At the same time, the dividing line between branch job functions has become blurred; employees are expected to learn and perform tasks ranging from check cashing to account services to sales, driving banks to recruit “universal associates.”

“Technology has brought fantastic efficiencies to the banking industry,” says Scott Smith, senior vice president of Interbrand Design Forum Inc., a branding consultancy. “Banks must focus on that technological enablement while still trying to attract customers to their branches,” where most products and services are sold. In its third annual financial management survey, Intuit Financial Services found that more than a third of consumers use online banking and more than a quarter say they have cut back on branch visits.

The traditional areas of a branch have been the teller cages and the “platform,” which is the desk area where managers and relationship bankers conduct client consultations. But secure cash recyclers that dispense currency have eliminated open cash drawers and thus the need for physical barriers, enabling tellers to step out into the open. “Tellers now greet customers at the door and walk them into the branch while asking about their needs,” says John Hyche, principal of Level 5, an Atlanta architecture and interiors firm that specializes in branch design. “Banking is now a whole new world of communication, engagement and listening.”

Many financial institutions have changed their hiring and training practices to reflect this new paradigm. At Bank of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., for example, the teller window has been replaced with desks and comfortable chairs for customers. And all branch employees are known as customer service representatives.

When she recruits, Christine Linford, vice president and director of human resources, focuses on attitude: “We look for energetic people with a service mentality and a warm personality.” She finds prospective employees in some unlikely places. Linford gave her business card to an airline ramp agent whose can-do attitude and helpfulness under pressure impressed her so much that she hired the woman a few weeks later.

“As the branch becomes a rich sales environment, bank tellers have the wrong skill set moving forward,” says Brett King, a consultant and author of Bank 2.0: How Customer Behaviour and Technology Will Change the Future of Financial Services. “Strong advisory and sales capability is needed.” King reports that several of his clients have turned to hiring from the hospitality and advertising industries in the quest for associates with stronger people skills.

Fewer in-person transactions have driven banks to deploy staff more strategically. “They must share the work to maximize productivity and efficiency,” says Jackie Hudson, retail practice director of enterprise solutions for Verint Systems Inc. She says some clients are gearing up for total “cross-channel workforce optimization” in the next two years; this approach will assign call-center and back-office tasks to underutilized branch employees.

WSFS Bank in Wilmington, Delaware, trains new employees to become universal associates and has created a “permeable” teller counter in its branches, a barrier-free design that permits associates to move about with customers.

Instead of hiring people with banking experience, Rick Wright, the bank’s executive vice president and director of retail banking and marketing, says he seeks recent college graduates and candidates with retail experience. To assess applicants’ potential, WSFS conducts extensive testing and considers about 100 candidates for every two to three open positions.

“Our HR design plan makes employees very difficult to hire,” Wright says. Banks traditionally have used on-the-job training, but new WSFS associates spend 16 weeks in classroom programs. These testing and training practices have proven to be a worthwhile investment, Wright says. Turnover at WSFS is just 17 percent while the industry average is 40 to 50 percent.

WSFS has been deploying universal associates for about eight years. Gallup surveys commissioned by WSFS show that customers are more satisfied, and the approach is also more efficient. “We can staff a 4,000-square-foot branch with two or three people,” Wright says.

Workforce Management, January 2011, p. 12 -- Subscribe Now!