Wells Fargo's Booking Tool Removes Branch Bete Noire: Waiting in Line

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Wells Fargo is aiming to boost in-branch sales by making booking appointments easier for consumers as they are researching bank products or interacting with the bank through its digital channels.

The banking giant recently started using scheduling technology that lets customers, or prospective customers, reserve one-on-one time with bankers using the bank's website or its mobile app.

While wait times at banks aren't what they once were, the service ensures that on-the-go customers will be helped the minute they walk in the door with the expert they need. It also allows bankers to plan ahead. If loan officers or account managers know who is coming in when, they can prepare the necessary documents and potentially speed up transactions.

Wells Fargo's enhancement underscores the fact that, while branch traffic is declining, most sales of loan, deposit or investment products are still made at the branch. It's also further evidence of how banks are using technology to draw customers who are researching their products and services through digital channels into their branches.

UMB Bank in Kansas City, Mo., for example, lets consumers book in-store appointments to learn about mobile and online banking features with its so-called Digital Geniuses. Its hope is that those one-on-one sessions will generate sales opportunities.

BMO Bank in Canada has let people schedule appointments with in-branch bankers since 2012. For BMO, offering the appointment tool while someone is researching a product online is meant to help the bank better its chances at converting a lead into a sale. Its U.S. banking unit BMO Harris has since made available the feature on its website.

In other cases, bankers are using technology to figure out ways to surprise consumers. Umpqua Financial Holdings in Portland, Ore., recognized for the novel ways it uses its branches to host community events such as yoga classes, says branch associates use down time in a variety of ways that include online research on customers and social media monitoring all with an eye toward finding ways to improve service (Umpqua sends flowers to customers, for example).

As branch traffic slows, branch bankers need to be more proactive at connecting with sales prospects, analysts say.

"They would sit and wait: That used to work," said Bob Meara, senior analyst with Celent's banking group. "Increasingly, it won't be the case."

A report from Novantas Research shows that customer-facing transactions at the branch have dropped 4.5% per year on average since 2008. (Novantas' data comes from polling community and large regional banks.)

At the same time, banks close most sales in the branch.

"The branch will have a role in the foreseeable future," said Dale Johnson, a managing director for Novantas' sales productivity team.

Since December, Wells Fargo has been letting people book in-person visits with its 32,000 full-time branch bankers via its website or its mobile app. The addition of the scheduling tool, which rivals like Bank of America have also made available, is meant to help consumers avoid lobby wait time to see subject experts who, say, speak Spanish, at a time that's convenient for them. Through the scheduling tool, bankers collect customer data to prep for the visit.

"You can set the menu ahead of time," said Lisa Stevens, Pacific Midwest regional bank executive for Wells Fargo, which tested the technology with certain locations a year prior to the broad roll out.

Wells declined to say how many appointments it has made since the tool's debut but did say the majority of scheduled visits are for new accounts and financial reviews. In other words, the most popular visits sound like serious sales opportunities for the bank.

Celent's Meara said branch personnel can use slower periods to prepare for sales and service appointments scheduled online or on mobile devices, make telemarketing calls from the branch and respond to social media queries by directing responses to nearby branches, and encouraging consumers to use digital services.

Some vendors are positioning their sales software as a tool that can be used by branch bankers during times of slow branch traffic.

Terafina, a sales company launched in June, is one of them.

Meheriar Hasan, principal founder and chief executive of Terafina and former executive at U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo, formed the company to provide branch staff and other bank personnel the elusive "omnichannel" view of sales leads. Branch employees who have time on their hands could login to the cloud-based tool and proactively reach out to prospects, for example.

Historically, banks' organizational silos have often prevented branch staff from communicating with clients over other channels. The decline of branch transactions occurring within the branch is helping to break down those barriers for some banks, Hasan said.

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