8 Pathways to Universal Associate Success

Implementing a universal associate training strategy in banking goes far beyond changing titles. To be successful, financial institutions need to improve training, measurement and hiring practices while considering physical branch redesign.

Staffing branches with universal associates may seem like a daunting endeavor, with the need for extensive retraining and new member service and scheduling strategies. But, bank and credit union managers well into integrating this strategy say the return on investment is worth the effort.

Improved efficiency, more responsive service, increased flexibility in scheduling, and more rewarding work opportunities are among the advantages of retraining tellers and member service representatives to deliver a full range of person-to-person services, from basic transactions to opening new accounts and taking loan applications. Many of these advantages were uncovered in our 2016 Retail Branch Lobby Study. Here are eight pathways financial institutions are taking to launch the universal associate model and realize these gains.

1. Find the Best Route to Retraining

Community First Credit Union of Florida began the shift in 2015 toward staffing its 18 branches with universal associates by training tellers to handle more complex member service interactions. However, branch managers quickly determined that a different tack – cross-training member service reps in teller functions – produces “more lift and a better service experience for members” in the early stages of this transition, says Vice President of Branches Jimmy Lovelace.

Training MSRs to handle teller transactions has made scheduling for peak times more efficient, and Community First has also seen a boost in production rather than a decline. “The assumption is that when you combine two previously distinct functions into one job, you get half the production on both sides, but we combat that by giving universal associates a share of the branch goal as if they were sales associates,” Lovelace explains. “At a branch with four employees, the shared branch goal for sales is divided by four, so that everybody has a piece of the loan volume goal and everybody has a piece of the membership goal.”

2. Schedule Smarter

“Knowing exactly where and when to use universal associates was difficult to do when we first rolled out our universal associate program,” says Melissa Lemire, Branch Manager with Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union, Lowell, Massachusetts. “We were able to use sophisticated scheduling software to help us pinpoint the times in the day they should be on the teller line, or on the lobby side. For example, the schedule might put them on the teller line for two hours starting a little after lunch time on Tuesday and then have them in the lobby the rest of the day. This saves us the burden from staffing a teller during that busy teller line period.”

The ability to track teller assist time, transition time, and idle time and to project staffing needs based on those metrics helps “to make sure we have the right people in the right places at the right times,” Lovelace agrees. “As we move to more of a retail model, we may see shifts from 10 to 2 and someone coming in just for two hours a day so we can be more responsive to member preferences. We could have a branch staffed with one teller, one MSR, and a universal associate who splits her day with another location.”

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3. Manage Staff Reductions Through Attrition

Pen Air Federal Credit Union, Pensacola, Florida, used a phased approach when launching a combination of a universal associate model and deploying a staff scheduling software. In stage one, consisting of two branches, they were able to trim 6.5 staff positions, for an annualized savings of $150,000. “Maintaining member service levels with fewer staff has been accomplished through more efficient scheduling of part-time staff and without the need for layoffs,” says Angie Betts, Senior Vice President/Member Experience. “It’s important to make staff cutbacks through attrition whenever possible, which is well received by our team and doesn’t hurt the culture.”

Pen Air is retraining front line staff and hiring new employees with retail sales experience to serve as “member advisors,” its job title for universal associates. As openings come up, managers use data from the scheduling system to determine whether to fill each position with a full- or part-time employee.

“For each new opening, we consider: Is it better to fill this position with a teller, a member service rep, or a member advisor? Our goal is to manage staffing more efficiently, and this data provides a powerful tool to do that,” Betts says.

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4. Enhance Retention

Early evidence at Community First shows that universal associates are more likely to stay with the credit union than tellers and member service reps. “That helps us meet our corporate goal of 80 percent retention across the board,” Lovelace says.

As universal associates, employees have opportunities to continually enhance their skills by taking on diverse and increasingly complex member service interactions. Retraining as universal associates was a natural path for senior tellers who demonstrated the most potential for career growth – especially with a reduction in staffing at smaller branches that eliminated the need for a senior teller position.

5. Widen the Field of Job Candidates

“As part of this change, we realigned all our job descriptions and roles and clearly defined what we expect in each role,” Betts explains. “For example, we used to require cash handling experience of tellers, but now we’re looking for customer service experience.”

As a result of this shift, Pen Air has expanded its pool of job applicants to include candidates with retail experience and has hired several new employees from outside of financial services.

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6. Onboard New Staff More Effectively

Community First previously scheduled four to six weeks for new employee training. But, with the universal staffing model, new hires get two weeks of training as tellers using new branch technology like cash recyclers and then spend a few weeks on the job before returning for another two-week training to hone their skills as universal associates. “At the end of each of those training periods, they have new levels of proficiency, which allows the branch to operate more efficiently,” he says.

At Pen Air, about 70% of its member advisors are tellers who have been trained and promoted to these positions, but the credit union also trains new employees to take on these more versatile responsibilities. Training both recent hires and existing employees in this new approach to front line member service isn’t a one-time event, Betts notes. “It takes practice, practice, practice – and a lot of coaching.”

7. Combine Universal Staffing with Branch Redesign

In addition to its new staffing model, Community First has begun to re-imagine branch layout and technology, beginning with its two newest facilities, which feature more open designs and an atmosphere that is “less transactional and more interactional,” Lovelace says.

The real traction for branch transformation and implementation of the universal associate model is in combination, he suggests. “The promise is that when members come through the door, any associate can help them with whatever they need. That is more conducive of the branch of the future – and of the type of interactions we want our members to have with our staff.”

8. Do More with Less

With declining transaction volume, Community First has become more targeted in identifying high-potential branch locations, where the credit union can position its facilities as community hubs and capitalize on the “billboard effect” in high-visibility locations to build brand.

“We’re trying to find ways to get people to come to branches for the right reasons, and the universal associate model provides added flexibility in the size of the branches we can build and the types of communities we can serve,” Lovelace says. “We can do more in a branch with fewer staff so we can leverage where we go with our branches more strategically.”

Transforming current front-line employees into high-performing sales and service professionals in a universal associate environment is not easy. Combining internal resources with outside expertise is usually the best strategy in transforming your current branch delivery model.

The use of universals associates is becoming much more commonplace, but the transformation must go beyond a simple change in branch titles. But, finding the right personnel, leveraging performance management technology, and implementing universal associate sales and service training can lead to significant gains in branch sales, service and productivity.

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