Retail banking sales is in disarray. Sales practices in branch and digital channels produce poor customer experiences and undermine revenue growth. As a former megabank executive who spent 16 years in customer experience and sales strategy roles, I have seen first-hand how difficult it is to build an omnichannel sales model that delivers quality advice and guidance at scale, which is necessary to help people achieve their financial goals for the ultimate customer experience.
The situation is far from hopeless, and advances in AI powered knowledge management systems are making a difference. Yet the ingredients for meaningful change are fundamental in nature.
Before getting to those, it is essential to understand why the banking sales model is broken.
Branches — Expensive Channel Under Pressure
Branch traffic has decreased 35% over the last five years, as reported by NPR news. That lower volume makes it much more difficult for financial institutions to get value from personal bankers who cost on average cost of over $70,000 a year (salary plus benefits) and sit in expensive retail locations. Banks and credit unions justify this expense by expecting strong relationship building and cross-sell through value-add guidance. The reality, however, does not match the strategy, as my mystery shopping experience shows.
Mystery shopping confirmed that placing high-cost personal bankers in expensive retail locations delivered subpar (or worse) performance.
As part of my research, I “shopped” a retail banker — a manager with eight years of experience — telling him that I wanted his recommendation on what to do about my $13,000 of high-interest credit card debt. Without missing a beat, he recommended a promotional credit card with a six-month 0% interest rate. He did not bother to mention that the interest rate jumps dramatically after six months, nor did he ask me a single needs assessment question.
If he had taken the time to understand my financial situation, he would have learned that my mystery shop persona had $300,000 of home equity and a five-year debt paydown expectation, making me an ideal home equity loan candidate. Had I followed his recommendation, I would have paid thousands of dollars of extra interest. When I said that I needed to discuss his advice with my wife, he took my contact information to follow up. I never heard from him again.
That mystery shop experience is not unique. Most branch bankers and credit union team members fall into one of three sales modes:
Order taker. These bankers complete the product application form. If the customer is not sure which product is best for them, the banker will put a brochure or summary product feature matrix in front of the customer. Little to no guidance is provided.
Product pusher. These bankers recommend products without bothering to assess customer needs. There are those, like the banker who helped me during my mystery shop, who recommend the “daily special.” Others mindlessly present the system-generated product offers, which are often inaccurate. As these offers are not tied to customer needs, they are also ineffective. Finally, among product pushers there are the “hammers,” who are only comfortable recommending one or two products. To them, every customer is a nail that gets one of their go-to recommendations.
Needs assessor. These bankers take the time to ask the customer questions about their financial situation and goals. They have been trained on complex frameworks with 10, 20, or even 30 questions. The concept is correct, but the execution rarely is. Only a highly skilled and experienced banker can conduct a brief and insightful assessment.
The banker sitting across the desk from the customer is inexperienced, unable to explain complex product features confidently and scared about violating procedures and regulations.
It not only requires listening to each answer and picking the next best question to ask from the extensive menu of options, but it also demands that the banker process all the customer information to make a recommendation. Because this model is so complex, most bankers ask one or two required questions before devolving into a product pusher or order taker.
While there are many causes for these failures, three factors are most impactful:
- First, customer-facing branch positions are usually entry-level roles with high turnover.
- Second, financial products are complex and challenging to explain.
- Third, branch representatives are under intense compliance and sales practice scrutiny.
Digital Channel — Still Brochureware
Virtually every bank and credit union web content is simply brochureware. To show how limiting this approach is, consider someone shopping on the website for guidance on reducing their credit card interest cost. A person in that situation needs the patience, determination, and savviness to wade through credit card, personal loan and home equity product descriptions to determine which solution is best.
Unfortunately, most of the content is long, complex and laden with jargon. There must be a better way, particularly as consumers continue the great migration from the branch to the digital channel.
The Solution: Start with a Sales Strategy Grounded in 5 Key Principles
New consumer and industry trends require new sales strategies. For example, declining branch traffic matters because branches are historically where most bank and credit union sales have occurred. Moreover, the competitive landscape is more intense. New entrants such as fintechs, neobanks, and tech and retail giants, such as Walmart, now vie for share of wallet.
To win in this new environment, banks and credit unions need sales strategies that are grounded in five fundamental principles:
1. Perform needs-based sales. A consultative conversation is — or should be — Sales 101, especially for something as complex as financial products. Take the time to understand your customer’s goals and basic financial situation. It also requires understanding all the customer’s current products, including those with competitors, because nearly 70% of bank and credit union customers use more than one institution for their financial needs. It’s a trend that is growing and unlikely to reverse.
2. Provide next best actions, not just products. While many financial institutions are focused on selling the next-best product, not every financial need can be immediately met with a product. A first-time home buyer may first need to save a down payment and improve their credit score. A young family may need to adjust their spending before opening a 529 college savings account.
Providing foundational financial guidance will differentiate your institution, strengthen the relationship with your customers, increase loyalty and lead to more customers who are financially able to buy your solutions.
3. Utilize the branch channel for priority customers. The branch channel is expensive, yes, but it is a competitive differentiator. Use it wisely. A book-of-business model works well for the branch channel. It’s a long-game approach, focused on balance growth.
Assign your most valuable (e.g., affluent) and strategically important (e.g., emerging affluent) customers to the branch team. Direct your branch bankers to schedule periodic “check-up” sessions with their client base, generating branch traffic and increasing utilization of expensive personnel.
What it Takes:
For the book-of-business model to work and for consumers to regularly trek into the branch, the bankers there must truly understand people’s goals and consistently deliver guidance that customers value.
4. Create omnichannel delivery. What is good for the affluent customer is also good for other segments and your bottom line. Retool your digital channel to deliver the same needs-based sales and guidance experience that your branch bankers provide, by creating a “virtual banker” experience. Even better, design a journey that can be started in one channel and finished in another.
At this point, you may be thinking that the above strategy sounds good in an article but is impossible to execute. I understand your skepticism. I failed to stand up banker needs assessment and book-of-business approaches at the large bank I worked for. Bankers were not skilled enough, and training plus coaching could not fill the gap. Advances in AI, however, now make the strategy a reality. This then becomes the fifth ingredient for sales success.
5. Embrace AI Knowledge Solutions. These artificial intelligence-powered solutions are now advanced enough to guide your omnichannel sales process. They have proven themselves in contact centers, efficiently directing customer service representatives to solve ever more complex service issues while delivering double digit improvements in first-contact resolution and customer satisfaction.
When applied to bank sales, knowledge systems act as the conversation and decision layer. First, they pull select information from your CRM system (account types, balances, credit score), marry it with available product offers, and guide the customer conversation. Next, the AI orchestrates the needs-assessment questions, completing the customer’s financial picture (goals, timeframes, financial products and balances with other firms, etc.) and evaluating the customer’s suitability for various products.
Is It Worth the Effort?
Both Boston Consulting Group and Accenture believe that personalized advice and guidance at scale can grow bank revenue by at least 10%.
Lastly, once the customer situation is complete, the knowledge system recommends the next best product or financial action.
The same knowledge system that guides the branch banker can power a bot on the website. This “virtual banker” can interact directly with the customer. And yes, bots can deliver quality financial guidance. For example, the GreenPath virtual financial coach provides credit building advice that reduces user credit stress by 35%, based on survey results at the beginning and end of the coaching journey.
Digital channel customers who want additional human support can seamlessly chat with a product specialist or even initiate a video call, creating an authentic omnichannel sales experience.
As a final benefit, knowledge systems generate an auditable record that documents the guidance and justifying rationale, which will delight the compliance team.
The Transformation Must Be Inclusive
Implementing knowledge technology alone is not enough. Changing the branch sales model is the hardest piece to execute because it involves people. In addition, most of the branch business model elements need adjusting.
For example, branch metrics and possibly incentives should include book-of-business balance growth. Likewise, the branch banker’s hiring profile and training regimen should change. Seek talent that enjoys delivering advice and guidance.