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Consumer Research Improves Bank Branch Design

Bank of Montreal has been on a seven-year journey to transform traditional branches for the new era of digital banking. The result has been smaller branches and a redesigned flagship office that make innovative use of technology.

Subscribe TodayThe banking industry is facing many of the same challenges as ‘traditional’ retailers today: fierce competition for share of mind and wallet and, as e-commerce expands, more consumers turning to the convenience of online and mobile to carry out transactions.

Thinking about a bank like any intelligent retail space, a successful retail bank must meet – and exceed – the needs of customers; offering the kind of environment where people feel relaxed and comfortable.

The fact that it is difficult to articulate exactly what it is about particular spaces that seem to innately achieve this for people demonstrates that design affects consumers unconsciously. Some spaces make us want to settle in and hang out for hours, while others incite fast paced interaction or creativity.

The challenge for retail designers is to understand what effect an organization wants to have on customers, how to attract them, and then design an environment that elicits the desired feeling or behaviour. This level of deep understanding is the unconscious side of design – key to creating spaces that are capable of changing the way customers think, decide and behave.

Whatever the setting, connecting the unconscious side of design with the space are the basic ingredients of a powerful retail experience. But determining what consumers really want out of the experience is trickier. The solution seems deceptively simple – why not just ask them?

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Uncovering Consumer Feelings Toward Bank Branches

The reality is that people don’t always know exactly what they want. Capturing an intangible feeling, an ease of use or a sense of excitement is hard to qualify using traditional, quantitative methods of capturing data.

Take the Bank of Montreal (BMO) for example, a very well-respected Canadian bank with an enviable history of customer loyalty. Before embarking on the redesign of their branch network and Flagship, BMO invested in extensive design research to uncover what their customers were really looking for – to ensure that the investment in design and build-out would address those latent needs and, ultimately seal long-lasting partnerships with their existing customer base (while attracting new ones).

Making intelligent, evidence-based decisions for the redesign of their branch network (including a 21,000 sf Flagship, located in Toronto’s financial epicenter) meant tapping into this intelligence to develop a design strategy capable of influencing customer behavior.

Customers reported feeling intimidated by the ‘institutional’ feel of traditional banks; they felt powerless over their own financial destiny. Instead, people were seeking open communication and access to products and services in a simple and transparent way – much like the online experience that they had come to rely upon.

The resulting insight: that customers need to connect with their personal banking advisors to feel secure, was a direct function of design research identifying a need for clarity in the banking experience. This became the backbone for all decisions surrounding the BMO redesign.

The design strategy of confidence through clarity was achieved by:

  1. Demystifying the banking experience and the meaning of money
  2. Using consumer-centric language
  3. Focusing on life-long partnerships vs. transactions

BMO Regional Vice President, Tony Tintinalli was very pleased with the results. “The new branches are designed with customer experience in mind, featuring layouts that remove physical barriers and ultimately foster deeper, more valuable advice-based conversations,” said Tintinalli.

Moving From Research and Design to Implementation

The result? A customer-centric network of branches, including a fully-loaded Flagship branch, that delivers what customers actually need from the retail banking experience: an open, welcoming and safe environment that encourages deep, valuable conversations with trusted advisors – the conversations that allow people to feel in control of their financial destiny.

Engaging your customers in qualitative design research that compliments the quantitative data will properly frame your opportunities prior to materially changing how they interface with your business. This is, quite possibly, the most powerful tool we have for creating a meaningful, profitable retail experience for retail banks and their customers.

The first implementation of BMO’s research was the launch of the bank’s first smaller-footprint neighborhood branch. As of May 2015, BMO had opened 30 neighborhood branches, with several more in the pipeline.

The design of these neighborhood branches focus on an open, transparent layout, where staff are more accessible than in its traditional branches. As opposed to simply shrinking a traditional branch, where branch personnel were behind walls, these 2,000 to 3,000 square foot offices provide a much friendlier environment.

Applying Early Learnings to a Flagship Design

The open, accessible design principles of BMO’s neighborhood branches are at the core of a totally remodelled 21,000-square-foot flagship branch. The branch includes digital signage, tablets for use by customers, meeting pods, and a secure wireless network for the staff to move around the branch with laptops to open meeting areas or private meeting rooms.

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The remodeled flagship branch sits at the corner of King and Bay, one of downtown Toronto’s busiest and most crowded corners. The illuminated branding, BMO blue racing stripe and digital signage, grabs the attention of passersby while the floor-to-ceiling windows provide a clear view of what is happening inside.

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Once inside, ‘the curtains are pulled back,’ revealing a completely open banking environment. By taking banking activities out of back rooms and into the open, customers feel empowered and integral to the banking experience.

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By breaking up the long, transactional ‘us vs. them’ counter and offering seating, traditional physical and emotional barriers are reduced and customers can share in a more collaborative interaction with staff.

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The Business Banking area functions as a ‘bank-within-a-bank.’ The intimate seated interaction space allows people to comfortably engage in comprehensive conversations, encouraging them to stay a little longer and spend time learning about products and services of interest.

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The inclusion of new omni-channel elements (like the tablets pictured), help make the transition from online to in-store more streamlined. Customers are offered a compatible banking experience with direct access to apps and online banking as well as in-store offerings.

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The meeting pods are a conscious nod to the delicate balance of transparency and privacy in a financial interaction. While the pods are situated within the open environment, the custom furniture offers acoustic and visual privacy in a comfortable, relaxed setting. Added mobile technology allows for movement between pods, streamlining information sharing.

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Comfortable, free meeting areas (a.k.a. “hives”) with custom seating and storage enhance the ability to exchange information in a fluid, collaborative way.

The Financial Brand Forum 2016 | May 16-18 | Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

An Ongoing Process of Transformation

BMO has found that branch transformation is a journey. Beginning more than seven years ago, the research and collaboration between the bank and design firm has had the objectives of trying to improve the customer experience while increasing staff productivity and lowering costs.

No longer is a cookie-cutter approach to branch design the best strategy. Smaller branch designs need to be customized for each market based on research done before the design and build processes. In addition, digital technology needs to be implemented where appropriate to facilitate a better end result.


marjorie mackenzie90Marjorie Mackenzie is the VP of retail at figure3. Marjorie is a branding expert who has spent the last twenty years working with leading retailers and international brands to create unforgettable customer experiences. Marjorie’s ability to build deep connections with consumers to bring brands to life has led to an award-winning career with retailers and brands including, Royal Bank of Canada, La Maison Simons, Loblaw Companies Ltd., Royal Bank of Canada, McEwan, Andrew Peller, Procter & Gamble, Mondelez International and Nestle..

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The Financial Brand Forum 2016 | May 16-18 | Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

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