Five Ways Banks Can Shift Branches from Transaction Centers to Value Drivers

Many banks are revising their assumptions about what happens in branches, especially when it comes to banker-customer interactions. Focusing on customer service and building relationships, they hope to reclaim the channel's role as a driver of growth and value.

After a decade of digital advances, bank customers say they have abundant online tools for transactions but not enough access to human beings to answer questions. This imbalance has created a new competitive opportunity for those banks that learn to provide collaborative and personal interactions at their branches.

According to a new report from Adrenaline, Gen Z and the Future of Finance, traffic through bank branches has risen since the pandemic, especially among younger generations. And banks vastly shrank their physical footprint starting in 2009.

But as The Financial Brand has reported, the pace of branch closures in 2023 was the slowest in a decade, a sign the industry might be coming back around to the importance of bricks and mortar. What’s more, as the Adrenaline report indicates, many banks are revising their assumptions about what happens in branches, especially when it comes to banker-customer interactions.

In a nutshell: Branch banking offers the opportunity to return to the relationship-based banking of the pre-digital era with smaller offices focused on expert advice rather than transactional services. Many banks are recognizing this shift in the way they are reimagining the interior design of their branches. But the customer experience needs a rethink as well.

The upside is real, as reflected in actions that have potential to drive higher-value product sales. Eight out of 10 consumers plan to return to the branch where they can get in-person financial advice, according to Adrenaline, a brand experience company focused on financial institutions. And 50% of consumers between the ages of 21 and 40 went into a branch “to work with staff to finish opening an account.”

That leaves some open questions: How can banks shift their working culture and customer service to ensure branches deliver what clients want? And how can they ensure bankers are building trust with clients and fortifying links to communities? Here are five things banks can do to take full advantage of their branches:

1. Shift From Transactions to Trust

Bank branches must be reorganized to enable a shift away from transactions and toward giving expert advice and problem-solving, said Glenn Grau, executive vice president of sales at PWCampbell, a design and branding company for banks and credit unions.

“Clients will do a lot of the research online, but when it comes time to buy, they want to talk to someone face to face,” said Grau.

Simply having a physical branch near the customer can be an important element in building trust, according to a 2023 Accenture study, which reported that two-thirds of consumers like seeing branches in their neighborhood because it portrays the stability and availability of their bank.

“Clients will do a lot of the research online, but when it comes time to buy, they want to talk to someone face to face.”

— Glenn, Grau, PWCampbell

2. Get Managers Out From Behind Their Desks

Bank branches for decades have been built around employees sitting across from clients while working at desktop computers. This leaves the customer less engaged with banking systems and can encourage bankers to adopt an order-taker mentality rather than a more initiative-driven, proactive approach, said Ben Hopper, managing director of retail strategy and advisory services at Adrenaline. Part of the digital era bank-branch rethink includes working a handheld device sitting together with clients.

“Untethering bankers from those workstations is a huge part of shifting the experience in the branch,” said Hopper. There’s an ops aspect to this transformation too: Banks can simplify tasks such as opening the branch or counting cash (within the scope of risk and auditing protocols) to create more time for clients. As Hopper puts it, “Reduce the time counting the dead presidents and increase the time talking to live customers.”

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3. Bring Back-Office Technology Into the Future

Better in-branch service also requires breaking down back-office silos that can leave customer information scattered across different divisions that don’t communicate with one another. Not only does this create problems for digital transactions, but it can also make the branch experience a frustrating one.

Imagine a client who has just had fifteen conversations with a contact center showing up at the branch only to find a banker who has no clue about their back story. “The customer would be beside themselves,” said Bob Meara, principal analyst at Celent, a research and advisory firm focused on financial institutions.

Dig deeper:

4. Make Sure Experts Are Available

Banks have broadly replaced traditional teller employees with universal bankers who can field questions across an array of products and services. But ensuring bankers are always available can be tricky given that most client interactions are walk-ins. “You don’t want to disappoint customers who arrive to find that everyone’s busy,” said Meara. Don’t “turn a great opportunity into a really bad experience.”

To be sure, banks today encourage users to book their visits ahead of time – think Apple’s Genius Bar – using online tools, but appointments are still much less frequent than walk-in visits. They’ve got a long way to go to manage that walk-in pressure. Banks have to ensure that they don’t leave clients waiting while also avoiding leaving highly trained bankers sitting in empty offices on slow days.

5. Remember the Importance of Cash

Even in the digital era, and nowhere more than in a bank branch, cash is king. A 2022 survey of U.S. and Canadian consumers conducted by strategic design firm Shikatani Lacroix found that 36% of respondents said that having a range of ATMs and video ATMs was a factor influencing their likelihood of visiting branches. Many small businesses still manage significant amounts of cash, which means they’ll likely visit the branch several times a week to make deposits, which creates the opportunity to build relationships, says Adrenaline’s Hopper.

Brian Ellsworth is a Washington-based journalist and communications advisor. He is a former Reuters correspondent who covered Latin America and the Caribbean for 20 years.

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