Debbie Richards, head of human resources at Bank of Tennessee in Kingsport, used to cringe when she heard a branch employee referred to as "just a teller."

Not only did that phrase minimize all of the work branch employees are now expected to do, but it also implied a sense of immobility.

So, two years ago she and her team began developing a program that aims to eliminate that perception.

As of last January all "customer experience officers," as tellers at Bank of Tennessee are called, started taking part in a complex training program designed to broaden their skills and earn them higher pay. The training, which consists of a series of modules developed internally at the bank, include salary boosts as sections are completed that overall can bump individual wages by 23% in about a year's time.

Debbie Richards, head of human resources at Bank of Tennessee in Kingsport
"To make employees at the branch more efficient, you need to make them multitalented," said Debbie Richards, the head of human resources at Bank of Tennessee in Kingsport.

Richards said that the program aims to increase the number of employees moving up through the organization, and to help map out the necessary path to reach a career goal.

Bank of Tennessee – which made its debut in American Banker's annual Best Banks to Work For ranking this year – is developing career progression plans for each department so that in future years a new employee hired as a teller would have a clear idea of what training and exposure they would need to move into lending, for example.

The program is both a recruitment tool and a reaction to technology. Banks and their front-line employees need to evolve, as the reasons why people visit branches change.

"To make employees at the branch more efficient, you need to make them multitalented," Richards said. "The banker who greets you as you walk in the branch needs to be able to do transactions for you, open accounts, even handle consumer lending. In years past we had one person doing each of those functions, but banking is changing and we have to keep up."

She said she hopes the program will serve as a retention tool by helping to prevent employees from becoming bored and by appealing to millennials who crave mobility and upward movement.

"The days of having an employee who happily works at the drive-through window for 30 years are over," Richards said. "The onus is on us to keep people excited and fresh in their jobs."

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So far the program has been developed entirely in-house, pulling in branch managers, supervisors and employees, along with others from human resources and training.

Richards said the bank has looked at adding a "learning management system," software that administers and tracks educational courses, as the program grows.

The program – formally called an individual development account program – is already expanding beyond tellers. Bank of Tennessee just passed $1 billion in assets, which brings new regulations that have caused it to revamp its credit department.

The transition makes for "a prime time" to develop new jobs with new training plans, said Richards, who hopes to have career paths mapped out for the entire organization within 24 months.

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