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MAINTAINING THE HUMAN TOUCHAs online banking grows, branches are redesigned with a retail feel to connect with customers

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Some of the accommodations a customer may find at a Santander Bank branch.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Some of the accommodations a customer may find at a Santander Bank branch.

Banks are taking action to keep branch locations open and viable during the mobile and digital age.

As customers do more online, banking officials say branch locations are transforming to appeal to customers that demand mobility. Offices are being revamped to give the feel of a retail store rather than a formal place of operation.

Features include cozy furniture, open space, modernized conference areas, the latest technology at teller stations, kiosks that offer computer access and bank employees armed with mobile devices to provide online support and instruction.

“Human interaction is very important. Customers, even young millennials, come into bank branches for face-to-face interaction,” said Maria Veltre, chief marketing and digital officer at Santander Bank, which has a major presence in the Greater Lehigh Valley. “As we renovate bank branches, we are giving them an informal look. There are collaborative spaces, more tables and conference areas.

“Both teller and customer see the same screens, technology has been updated and tellers have a more open flow. Customers sit side-by-side with personal bankers to discuss private matters.”

RETAIL-INSPIRED FEATURES

At the American Bankers Association, Mike Townsend, director of public relations, said a growing number of banks are combining simple bank designs with innovative technology and personalized service. Branches are offering retail-inspired features that include lounge areas with gourmet coffee, free Wi-Fi and extended hours.

Tellers may greet customers at the door with tablets or mobile devices, and customers have the option of using self-service kiosks and video ATMs where one can chat with a remote teller.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening in retail banking, and it’s all focused on enhancing the customer experience,” Townsend said.

MULTIPLE CHANNELS

At Santander, Veltre said she is in contact with many branch locations.

In general, customers are making use of multiple channels, she said, using bank locations for some services and going online for others. It comes down to an individual customer’s level of comfort.

“We do not find that there are larger pockets of people that are only doing things online,” Veltre said, “The bank’s specific branch count has gone down companywide, but when we close a branch, we look at if there are branches that are close together.

“We want to make sure we are still serving our customers in that particular area, and sometimes these bank closures lead to reopening a branch in a new location that is more convenient or centralized.”

BRANCH CLOSINGS

Wells Fargo is one of many banks that recently announced intentions to close branches in the next few years.

However, Jim Baum, who handles regional communications for Wells Fargo in Pennsylvania and Delaware, said that he only knows of one drive-thru location in the region that is set to close in the near future.

He also said he is not aware of any branch closures in the region.

HUMAN ASPECT

Laura Haffner, area president for Wells Fargo’s 40 locations in the Lehigh Valley, said it is her experience that customers want face-to-face interaction, no matter their age or how often they go online.

They will visit Wells Fargo for the human contact and décor. Specifically, customers say they enjoy the murals that can be found at each branch which depict historic places and events in the Lehigh Valley.

She said branches have been remodeled to provide kiosks to give patrons computer access, and teller lines now have pin pads available for authentication. There is no need to present identification; ATM cards will work to identify a customer.

“Within the next year, a team of digital advocates will be on hand at the bank branches to show customers how to use the bank’s mobile application,” Haffner said.

ADVICE ON IMPORTANT DECISIONS

Gary Dudish is Pennsylvania retail banking manager for M&T Bank, which has multiple locations in eastern Pennsylvania. He said M&T’s relationship bankers are trained to give guidance tailored to meet customers’ financial goals.

He said customers prefer to go to a branch for one-on-one conversations with financial advisers about important decisions such as buying a home or car, saving for college or planning for retirement.

“We haven’t closed any branches in eastern Pennsylvania recently. Our network evolves constantly. It changes whenever we complete acquisitions, when we build branches and move or consolidate others and when we add new technologies,” Dudish said.

“In some situations, we often look to consolidate offices – not only to improve our efficiency but also to make sure that we’re located where our customers are located.”

DIGITAL AMBASSADORS

Spokesman Trevor Koenig at Bank of America said that the bank is equipping its financial centers – including multiple locations in eastern Pennsylvania – with the most tech-savvy gadgets and services.

New employees are being hired as digital ambassadors to work closely with customers interested in learning about the bank’s online offerings. He said one of every five deposit transactions made at Bank of America is being done by mobile device.

While routine transactions are increasingly being performed online, financial centers are adapting to fit the ever-changing needs and habits of customers. Branches are still the destination for financial advice on life priorities, Koenig said.

NOT GOING AWAY ANYTIME SOON

In South Whitehall Township, Mark Jaindl, president and CEO of American Bank, said his bank is focused on maintaining a solid online presence but will continue “providing customers that human touch.”

Jaindl said several of the bank’s employees have been around a long time and know the customers and their families.

Some customers may go in to chat with banking representatives over coffee and refreshments while others visit the branch to open an account, meet with a loan officer, apply for a loan or open a safe deposit box.

At Wells Fargo, Haffner said she speaks for many industry officials when she said, “As long as people have use for bank branches, there will be branches.”

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