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The concept of "dialogue banking" is relatively new to credit unions and retail delivery of services, and USE Credit Union says its new branch is the first to bring the member-centric design to San Diego County.

The branch, which opened Oct. 1, is designed to make members feel as if they are entering a coffee house rather than a financial institution, according to Kevin Moyle, USE's assistant vice president of marketing services. He said the branch has art on the walls that supports the CU's branding efforts, a children's play area, an Internet cyber caf?, red leather chairs and red drop lights that "create an intimate setting."

"It is well-lit, but, combined with the art on the walls, the lighting makes it warm and inviting," he said. "It feels like a Starbucks; but instead of buying music, members can pick up free financial information."

Moyle said traditional teller lines have been replaced by "pods," or separate workstations designed to promote easy interaction between staff and members.

For example, instead of chairs placed on opposite sides of a desk, the chairs are next to each other, or there are none.

"The design supports person-to-person banking," he explained. "When a member walks in to do a transaction, he or she can choose from one of several pods. With no chairs, the member stands next to the teller. There is a pivotable, flat panel monitor so the member can see, also."

"If someone needs to sit, of course, chairs are available," he added.

Lori Klash, media relations officer for USE, said the goal of dialogue banking is to make transactions easier for members and to give better service. She said all employees are universally trained, "so they can handle any request from a basic transaction to opening a loan. It is more efficient that way."

Both Moyle and Klash said Washington Mutual has had some success with the non-traditional branch model in the San Diego area. "But they didn't go quite as far as we did," Moyle asserted.

Added Klash: "We are not aware of another credit union doing this in the state, but to be safe, we are saying we are the first in San Diego County. Washington Mutual has a San Diego branch that does this, and other credit unions are doing it in Oregon and Washington."

The use of pods and other informal ways to get staff to interact freely with members was a hot topic at the recent CUNA Operations, Sales and Service Council conference in Las Vegas. Educational session speakers told attendees the branch should be viewed from the perspective of the member, rather than by product or distribution channel.

Chris Smith, executive vice president for IBT (International Banking Technologies), also credited Washington Mutual for popularizing dialogue banking. The Benicia, Calif.-based company has consulted with credit unions on branch design and building since 1984. One session at the CUNA OpSS Council conference featured an IBT executive and two of its clients-BECU and Kitsap CU.

"The technology has been around for a long time," Smith told The Credit Union Journal when asked to assess USE's new branch. "We have found it is very important to understand who the market segment is before investing. A young, upwardly mobile audience would be more accepting and open to a new idea. A credit union doesn't want to open a dialogue banking branch near a retirement community." "And, a credit union must make sure the staff is fully trained," he counseled.

Prototype For Future

USE will use the Carmel Mountain Ranch branch as a prototype for new branches and remodels, said Klash. "The grand opening celebration went extremely well. One member told us he would have coffee at the branch every Monday. It doesn't feel like a typical financial institution.

Asked if the CU is concerned about profitability, given in-branch transactions are the most expensive, Moyle said the demographics of the area supported the decision.

"We wanted a North County branch because we didn't have one there. We have many members in the area, and it was our obligation to provide them with a branch. We are going into a market that models tell us will provide enough traffic to support a profitable branch," he said. "We expect it will be profitable within one year."

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