Design Branches to Sell Products

"I have to go to the bank" ranks alongside "I have to have root canal work." Have you ever heard of anyone who really wanted to go to the bank?

It should be no surprise, then, that banks with thousands of daily visitors -- the envy of any retail store and the franchiser's dream -- are losing major markets to industries without branch systems.

Meanwhile, the same banks are spending millions to redirect their customers away from branches to supermarkets, discount stores, and convenience outlets.

The Unsung Branch Network

And what about the millions of bank advertising dollars being spent with little concern for the marketing potential that is created by adding a new location to the branch system?

Wouldn't it be wonderful for bankers if people wanted to go to the bank to be enlightened, uplifted, or indulge in a little impulse buying? Perhaps they would spring for a new car, new living room furniture, or a few shares of AT&T.

Salespeople sell these things every day. Why not generate the interest in your lobby, just like a retailer does?

Many banks are, of course, pursuing branch retailing concepts and cross-selling. I recently visited a new branch of a major Detroit bank that was touting a revolutionary concept of bank retailing.

Specialists Brought In

The bank had even engaged out-of-town experts to conceive and design the branch retailing features. It was a very lovely building with terrific displays.

It had advertising at the teller line and displays for the check desks, and the balance of the lobby was filled with displays containing loan information: car loans, college loans, home loans, you name it.

To make floor space for this retailing concept, all of the branch staff had been placed in private offices or behind the teller line.

I suppose if a customer really wanted to buy something, he could eventually find someone to help.

Even my bank has its new retailing concept. It offers its employees a $25 cash reward if they sell anything new to existing customers. Rather than let them hunt me down, I've decided to do business with a machine.

The problem, as the pundits say, "is a vision thing." Banks are not planned, built, and equipped to promote the buying of financial products. They're built to satisfy the banker.

The typical branch is a paragon of operational efficiency, security, and corporate image. It aims to have the customer in the building for the shortest possible time or, if the drive-ups and ATMs are successful, not at all.

Customers who do enter are directed to stand in line, wait over there, or sit down here.

Too Many Barriers

The typical branch also excels at creating physical and psychological barriers that impede the process of buying. Perhaps glass is necessary at the teller line, but everywhere?

There are other ways to achieve good security without sending negative messages to the customer.

Desks, too, represent barriers. Desks may be appropriate for hiring and firing, but they're anathema when it comes to sales. A good salesperson will be on the same side of the product as the customer, not behind a desk.

Instead, why not build a branch that enhances your customers' vision of your company and its products? Eliminate the sales barriers and create an atmosphere that contributes to the buying process. Attract your customers' attention and hold their interest.

Enlighten them by showing how you can easily satisfy their needs. Raise their financial awareness of the capabilities of your company. Gratify them with expert, accurate, and personal service. Then take them to a desk and seal the deal.

A Customer-Friendly Lobby

This does not mean putting more displays in the lobby. It does mean, however, that your lobby should be different from that of the typical bank's. It should be planned with the customer in mind and augmented by interesting visual material to encourage buying.

For starters, think of your lobby as a product display area -- from the outside as well as the inside. Buyers respond to appearance. If the building exterior is well done, people will come in just to look -- and some of them will be your competitors' customers.

The process of buying begins when the customer decides to enter your branch. The entrance should develop as a controlled visual experience, culminating at the sales area you have created to attract attention.

Lighting will be a major factor. The first view inside the front door should be of this area. Remember, customers have to approach the tellers and platform people, so emphasis on these areas is not necessary.

Holding Their Interest

Once you have attracted the customer's attention, the next step is to hold and develop interest. A uniformed, professional salesperson will best know how -- not selling from behind a desk, but working with the product displays to assist the customer with the buying process.

If a workstation is provided, it should be inconspicuous and used only when necessary. Consider an informal work setting, like that used by personal shoppers at the larger retail stores.

The content of the visual material will be very important because that is what attracts the customer in the first place. It should focus on a specific promotion rather than present everything your bank sells.

It should be changed periodically and have true appeal. Don't display 84 easy payments or low closing costs; rather, show the product and the value gained by making those 84 easy payments.

All Customers Are Not Equal

Why not display a car in the lobby, for example? It's not necessary for every branch to have an experienced floorwalker and an extensive display. Only properly located floor space is required; the same display can circulate to different branches.

Bank retailing would be much easier if all customers were created equal. Unfortunately they're not. My wife won't use the financial services at our branch because she thinks the staff lacks sufficient expertise.

So she does her investment business over the phone with somebody she's never seen face to face. My daughter, on the other hand, comes home with her passbook, feeling enlightened about bank services.

A telephone at the branch might get my wife's business, if it were connected to a financial expert.

After all, if Boston's Fidelity Investments handles over 100,000 phone calls with over 100,000 transactions each day, it would seem to be an idea worth considering.

But why stop at just a telephone? Let's go back to this new sales area in the lobby and put in one or more semiprivate booths.

Each with a telephone, video screen, keyboard, calculator, and fax machine, all linked to the main office.

Instant Service

Now you can enlighten, uplift, and gratify your more sophisticated customers with immediate self-service. They can have access to highly qualified experts without standing in line, and if they wish, they can get a comprehensive presentation of their financial status.

With a little advertising in the booth and assistance from your attentive salesperson, you might even sell a few shares of AT&T. If you include a printer, the forms can be prepared by the main office expert, signed by the customer, and faxed back to close the deal.

Don't underestimate the versatility of electronics. In my neighborhood, Standard Federal, a people-oriented thrift, has a branch that does almost 3,000 weekly electronic transactions.

And that without any promotion. Think of the possible reduction in branch staffing if commonly accepted electronic devices were applied to servicing the customer.

It's conceivable that a full-service branch could be managed with just three people, including the floorwalker. Imagine the attention your product display would attract if it employed TV monitors and video cameras.

How about going back to 1970s technology and putting TV screens displaying a video-taped message at the drive-ups?

Branch banking has a competitive edge over the wannabe financial companies because most people still believe they have to go to the bank. Guard and protect that advantage. If bankers don't, the expression "I have to go to the bank" will take its place alongside another oldie, "I have to get ice for the icebox."

Mr. Forbes heads G.H. Forbes Associates, an architectural firm in Birmingham, Mich.

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