So You’re Ready to Deploy Universal Bankers… Now What?

As the world emerges from the pandemic, many financial institutions are accelerating plans to implement universal bankers in some — if not all — of their branches. But making the shift poses a range of HR-related challenges, ranging from process planning, personnel selection, training costs and curriculum, and ongoing metrics needed to quantify and calibrate success. Here's what you need to ensure a smooth transition.

Over the past decade, retail financial institutions have shuttered about one in six locations, and continue to shrink the size of their branch networks by about 2% per year. Foot traffic in branches is down — or non-existent during COVID lockdowns — but in-person sales and advisory services will remain important to many consumers even after the pandemic.

As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, more and more branches will be reopening. But in 2020, consumers grew increasingly comfortable with digital channels, and some may be even less inclined to use traditional branches than they already were. To make more effective use of the brick-and-mortar locations that remain, many banks and credit unions are looking to accelerate the implementation of a universal banker strategy.

Universal bankers have been around for a couple of decades, so banking executives are familiar with advantages of the delivery model — namely increased efficiency and productivity of frontline personnel, improved share-of-wallet through cross-selling, and a more simplified, convenient experience for consumers. Now in the wake of the pandemic, many financial institutions are starting to move beyond the “why” and get to the “how.”

The decision to implement a universal banking model can’t be made hastily. It’s a big commitment representing a fundamental shift in branch strategy. There are risks, particularly for those institutions that don’t support the move with in-depth and ongoing training. For instance, the skills frontline branch staff once needed — e.g., the ability to quickly and accurately count cash — aren’t as critical in a delivery model leveraging cash recyclers.

John Hyche, SVP/Principal at consulting firm LEVEL5, says one of the biggest decisions you’ll need to make hinges on how many universal bankers each location may need. Hyche says staff size will largely be determined by business volume, but the full range of factors includes:

  • The number and balances of accounts the branch serves
  • The breadth of services the institution offers — consumer, commercial, real estate, investments, trust, etc.
  • The extent to which the branch staff is responsible for “back office” activities — underwriting, loan review, account maintenance, call center overflow, etc.
  • The institution’s goals and methods for cross-selling
  • The range of technologies available (or lack thereof) to support customer engagement and account activity

The two most significant aspects of a universal banking model — an open floor plan and cash recyclers — are foreign and unfamiliar to most branch staff. Cathy Arner, Director of Training for LEVEL5, says universal bankers have to juggle the between the needs of employees, customers, and lobby management while having the ability to multi task in an open lobby environment. “This skill set is very different from the typical frontline teller,” she explains.

Key Fact:

Five years ago, cash recyclers cost around $50,000. Today, you can pick them up for as little as $15,000, depending on the machine and its configuration.

LEVEL5’s Arner says all these changes place new burdens on trainers. “It is very difficult to train universal bankers if the trainer has not been previously immersed in the open lobby environment,” Arner says. “The skill sets are all-inclusive of banking protocol, product knowledge, accuracy, and the ability to engage customers consistently in ways that offer a unique and positive service experience.”

Arner says many HR professionals have had to change their interviewing process when recruiting universal bankers. “They realize they need to ask more behavioral questions around relationship building and multi-tasking to find the best candidates.”

The old approach — where new tellers might get a little on-the-job training from senior tellers — must also change. You will need to identify and quickly cultivate mentors in each branch that can encourage the consistent application of best practices.

Incentive structures are another serious consideration. Changing roles without changing incentives leads to failure. After all, you can’t expect tellers to become cross-selling rock stars without dangling some fresh carrots. And if you want branch staff to function as a team, then you need strong team incentives, too.

Paul Robert, CEO of FI Strategies, says the ideal universal banker is approachable, smiles easy, highly empathetic and social. That’s why he recommends spending at least as much time on interaction and listening skills as you would training on more technical and operational areas.

“You can’t assume tellers will automatically comfortable approaching members in the lobby,” he explains. “An employee who is very friendly behind the teller line or new account desk may be more reserved circulating out in an open lobby as a universal banker.”

“Universal bankers will often shepherd consumers through a branch journey that is new and unfamiliar,” Robert explains. “That requires highly developed interpersonal people skills, not just ‘knowledge’. Acquiring and perfecting those skills doesn’t come without structured, regimented training.”

Reality Check:

Not everyone working in your branches today will survive the shift to a universal banker model. As you rightsize staffing levels and consolidate roles, you’ll have to choose who to cross-train… and who to let go.

Kurt Klassen, VP of Sales at LEVEL5, recommends a phased approach to training. Start with pre-launch training in the classroom, then in-branch training prior to opening, followed by a three-month period after the rollout to smooth out any bumps. Once a year you should consider having a refresher course and refinement sessions.

The good news? Many financial institutions already possess many of the training elements needed for universal bankers. After all, they have trained tellers, customer service representatives and personal bankers for a long time. But both the sequence and structure of their training programs will change as they expand the amount of curricula needed to increase people’s soft skills.

These training hurdles may be too great for some financial institutions to tackle without help. “While the operations and knowledge training can be delivered with in-house resources, most financial institutions find they need outside resources to improve those people skills,” says Robert.

Whether you choose to recruit externally, cross-train internally, or hire a professional trainer, LEVEL5’s Arner stresses the importance of both initial and ongoing training — from handling transactions to onboarding and problem resolution.

Whichever route you go, Robert says you have to be very careful: “Go to great lengths to make certain you get the right people for this very critical role.”

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