Paul Seibert of EHS Design, based in Seattle, OR, has designed 1,400 bank branches during his career. He believes that continued branch innovation - driven by customer tastes and banks' willingness to experiment - means that banks will one day look very different from one another.

BTN: Has the pace of branch innovation picked up?

Seibert: I've been doing this for 35 years. I managed facilities for a couple of national banks and made changes way back in the '70s, trying different ways of moving people through branches and creating relationships. So we've seen an evolution, but in the last two or three years I've seen a lot of change.

BTN: What's a good example of that change?

Seibert: Washington Mutual's [Occasio branches]; unfortunately, because Washington Mutual failed it somehow says that the branch design failed, which I think is a stretch. Washington Mutual did come up with the idea, and made a huge advance for the industry. What made that possible was cash dispensers because it allowed control of the money, and allowed people to get out of the teller lines and out to the teller pods. I think that's probably been one of the big advances to change the branch environment, to take these people who are having most of the contact and put them out front and turn them into Nordstrom sales people.

BTN: Besides cash recyclers, how is technology changing branch interactions?

Seibert: What we're also seeing is how some of the screens are used; screens are typically something hidden from the customer...and now there's a potential of sharing those screens with customers as banks try to get more of a consulting relationship, an advisory relationship.

BTN: Speaking of screens, what do you think of Microsoft's Surface Technology?

Seibert: I think that's a way to apply some serious fun to branches. The ability to communicate with movement and hands is a whole different way of using your senses to communicate. The desk can become this amazing center where you can move a person physically [and] not just verbally throughout the space. And as you know people learn differently; I think this brings a whole new way of communicating with people who learn using these kinds of dimensional relationships and also be used for fun.

BTN: What do you see on the horizon?

Seibert: Radio frequency identification (RFID) imbedded in the bank card is something that we might see in the future. So as soon as the customer walks into the bank branch the [bank employees have] all the data they need about them, a name and photograph, that sort of thing. The idea is you can recognize that person and that's a huge step... How great would it be for someone to come in and their face pops up on the screen, and you say 'Hi, Bob, good to see you again.' That would be amazing, very incredible. So in the future I think this will be applied, it's just going to take some time to figure out. There's a bit of Big Brother people are resistant to.

BTN: So innovation will continue?

Seibert: Absolutely. If you go back 30 or 40 years, every branch looked the same, technology was limited, everybody had cash, all had cash drawers, all the same. Now there is so much opportunity to be different; that's being driven by the technology but also being driven by people's expectation and desire to have closer connections and differentiation. They want more choice and banks are responding to that by trying new things and new ways to do business... The range [of branch design] is just going to get greater and greater and greater and people will continue to experiment and that's wonderful, and technology will really help drive this.

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