Putting Digital ‘Tech Champs’ in Every Bank Branch Location

Hands-on demonstrations can convince wary consumers that digital banking tools are both safe and simple.

Millions of consumers have gleefully jumped on the online and mobile banking bandwagon. But there are millions more who still haven’t. What’s holding them back?

“There’s nothing like hands-on help with technology. So we turned every branch into a mini ‘tech haven’ for those who have questions or need a demonstration.”
— Rob Cummings,
SVP/Online + Mobile
Mountain America CU

Among those yet to embrace modern, web-based banking channels, some admit they are intimidated by new technologies, while others say they distrust the security of internet-connected devices particularly for financial activities.

How can banks and credit unions convince wary consumers that online and mobile banking tools are both safe and simple to use?

Easy. Just show them.

That’s exactly what one credit union is doing. Mountain America, a $3.5 billion credit union in Utah, is putting an online and mobile banking expert in every one of their 76 branch locations.

Mountain America has given employees in the new role the title “Technology Champion.”

Rob Cummings, SVP of online and mobile banking at Mountain America, is on a mission to convert as many digital disciples as possible. He worries that consumers who are either unfamiliar or distrustful of new banking technologies are missing out.

“There’s nothing like hands-on help with technology,” Cummings says. “So we turned every branch into a mini ‘tech haven’ for those who have questions or need a demonstration.”

The strategy isn’t one-directional though. Mountain America’s tech champs are expected to do more than just show and tell. They will listen and learn from members as well.

“Our Technology Champions are also a valuable conduit for member feedback, allowing us to improve our online and mobile offerings faster and more effectively,” explains Cummings.

In the first third of 2013, Mountain America saw more than 35,000 new mobile app downloads, with nearly 85,000 active app users currently — that’s 20.3% of the credit unions 419,256 members. The credit union is also averaging more than 8,000 new users monthly of its “My Money Manager” online personal financial management tool.

The Evolving Role of Branch Locations

Mountain America isn’t the only financial institution to turn its branches into digital showrooms. Recently Allied Irish Bank stuffed all its banking technologies together in a physical, brick-and-mortar showroom.

“Our mobile and online banking offerings are market-leading, yet almost half our customers have yet to embrace digital banking,” said AIB’s director of personal, business, and corporate banking, Bernard Byrne.

So AIB set out to create a learning and research environment focused on exposing consumers to the full range and capabilities of the bank’s digital, online and mobile banking solutions. The new location is jam packed with tech: iPads, digital kiosks, LCD screens, and a virtual avatar to guide visitors through the space.

The National Bank of Greece did something similar back in 2011 with their iBank concept. The i-bank is, in essence, a giant, real-life marketing tool — much like an ad or billboard for the bank’s online and self-service channels. The space was smeared thick with digital technologies designed to promote and teach the use of web-based banking services.

And who can forget ING Direct, with their Orange Cafés sprinkled across North America? They’ve been rolling out these digital showrooms — with no transactional capabilities — since 2007.

More and more financial institutions are struggling to redefine and justify their branch networks. With online and mobile channels siphoning off a significant volume of branch transactions, banks and credit unions are left wondering what to do with their physical locations.

Financial institutions around the world are toying with all kinds of crazy experiments as they seek to define a future role for branches. Some are redesigning their retail locations with themes drawn from coffee shops, wine bars, spas, libraries, neighborhood stores, community hangouts and theater sets.

Other banks, like Wells Fargo and BMO, can’t figure out why they need 5,000 square feet anymore. Their micro-branches scale down floor plans to correspond with the steep declines in retail foot traffic. You could call this the “vanishing branch design.”

But ING, AIB, Mountain America and some others think they have the solution (at least for the time being) to the branch dilemma: turn branches into training facilities where consumers learn — somewhat ironically — how to not need or use branches anymore. It’s a reasonable strategy, but one that — if ultimately successful — has a limited lifespan; it puts branches on the express lane to obsolescence.

Once customers have been convinced that bricks and mortar aren’t necessary, what good are branches then? What’s next? Or is the “digital showroom” role for branches their final, self-sacrificial act?

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