Big banks increasingly want branch workers to act like salespeople — but they're not quite ready to pay them for the extra hustle it takes to close a deal.

Commercial banks are starved for sales growth, and hefty bonuses and commissions are proven incentives in other industries. Yet such pay structures require new technology for tracking employee performance and could run afoul of new compensation regulations.

Faced with that conundrum, JPMorgan Chase & Co., KeyCorp and other major lenders have been tweaking how they calculate compensation for personal bankers, tellers, branch managers and other customer-facing staff. They're downplaying classic metrics like new account openings while emphasizing client satisfaction and in-house referrals.

The size of the carrots they're dangling hasn't changed. On average branch workers earn $1 to $2 in variable pay out of every $10 they take home. That is the same as before the recession, according to bank compensation experts and branch consultants.

"We're really focused on risk," said Henry Meyer, the chairman and chief executive of KeyCorp, whose workers in its 1,000 branches earn just a small amount of their pay through bonuses or commissions. "We don't want people doing business just to make — individually — more income for their families. They're paying their bills more with salary."

Still, as they try to recover from the financial crisis, banks like KeyCorp are increasingly looking at branches as mini-banking hubs rather than deposit piggy banks. They strive for places where small-business bankers, investment advisers, personal bankers and others have a top mandate to sell as much stuff as possible to existing customers.

The problem is, unlike car dealerships or high-end clothing stores, retail banks have long been reluctant to offer big commissions to sales associates. And when they have — with mortgage officers, for instance — things sometimes have ended poorly.

So banks are in the early stages of modifying the ways in which they motivate branch workers to maximize sales. But they face a number of barriers.

For one thing, bankers are still trying to make sense of new guidance on incentive pay that the Federal Reserve and other regulators released in June. The industry is still smarting from the backlash against Wall Street bankers' pay, and there's a reluctance to meddle with how they pay bankers who serve Main Street.

"People still want to pay for performance, but they have to be careful to pay for the right performance," said Thomas Watkins, founding partner of Chartwell Partners, an executive search firm in Dallas.

"It's a long way from the traders to the customer service rep in a branch. And yet great care has to be used."

There are logistical barriers, too. Few banks have the actual tools in place to change how they dole out bonuses and commissions at branches. Most are still using compensation playbooks that haven't been touched since the economy collapsed in 2008. Only a few have the technology in place to tie incentives to sales.

In a Celent survey of more than 200 financial institutions in June and July, only 25% said they had the ability to track how many cold calls a personal banker makes and how many leads came to fruition. Most branch technology is only good for keeping tabs on how many checks a teller can process in an hour.

"It's a little bit tough," said Aaron Fine, a partner with Oliver Wyman Group.

"The more heavily you gear them towards what they do, the more certain you have to be of what they're doing. People are going to try to get paid — whether that's a trader or a branch banker or anyone else."

The few institutions that have technological wherewithal — U.S. Bancorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., KeyCorp and Huntington Bancshares Inc., among others — have mostly been focusing on how incentives are awarded.

They are putting more emphasis on things like referrals and customer satisfaction. In the past, a home lender or financial adviser could earn more by simply selling more home equity loans or checking accounts. But now banks are waiting to see how much revenue those products generate before rewarding the salesperson.

JPMorgan Chase, for instance, gives fewer bonus points for a new checking account with little activity than it does for one that starts getting direct deposits within a few weeks.

"People are paying a lot more attention to the quality of accounts," said Darryl Demos, managing director with the consultancy Novantas. "Do you pay people on widgets? The number of items they handle or process? Or do you pay them on balances or revenue? There's a lot of debate in the industry. Acquiring new customers is really hard. So the game right now is to expand the share of wallet."

That drive to sell more products to customers has institutions like these taking a hard look at increasing the size of the bonuses, commissions and profit-sharing awards available to branch staff, experts said.

U.S. Bancorp and Huntington have been busy recruiting ex-salespeople, and they're also requiring more of their branch people to act like salespeople.

U.S. Bancorp makes its branch managers do double duty as small-business bankers. Roughly 2,200 of them are required to make eight sales calls a week.

Huntington, in turn, is opening more than 100 new branches inside grocery stores across Ohio. It wants to fill them with gregarious types who would be willing to make sales pitches in the milk aisle. Huntington doesn't necessarily need people with banking experience.

The problem is that those kinds of people — often ex-insurance peddlers or real estate agents, among others — are used to getting paid for extra effort. So far, most banks have been reluctant to offer more money for higher sales.

Huntington hasn't made any recent changes to how it compensates branch workers, a spokesman said.

KeyCorp has been shrinking variable pay and boosting base salaries across the company. Its incentives for branch workers are based on recognition, not money.

U.S. Bancorp did not return calls seeking comment.

Experts say that reluctance to raise incentives may fade as the economy recovers and competition heats up for loans and investment products.

In the Celent branch-issues poll, more than half of respondents from big banks (those with assets of at least $50 billion) said that in the next five years they would probably offer higher compensation for higher sales results at branches.

"As banks are seeing declining foot traffic in their branches," said Bob Meara, a Celent analyst, "they have to do something fundamentally differently or they are going to see declining sales."

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