OF ALL THE CHALLENGES that come with switching to a universal banker model, winning over employees is one of the biggest.

So the communication strategy is crucial, says Gary Swindler, senior vice president and chief member officer for WSECU (formerly Washington State Employees Credit Union).

Swindler started talking with employees about the transition six months before training for the new role — which his credit union refers to as a "member consultant" — began in March 2012.

Most embraced the change, perhaps in part because of the higher salary that would come with it, he says. A member consultant is paid about $15,000 more than a teller and about $6,000 more than a member service officer on average.

Rather than issue a mandate, the credit union let reluctant employees stay in their existing jobs. Swindler estimates about 20% hesitated initially, though the holdouts dwindled by half as training got underway. Today, of its 146 frontline employees in 18 branches, only four traditional tellers remain.

Monthly dialogues between supervisors and individual staff members helped with the transition. "There was a lot of emotion with some people," Swindler says. "'It's not my job' and 'I wasn't hired to do this.'"

The response he gave is that customers are coming into branches less often and that, when they do come in, they are looking for help with such tasks as downloading a mobile app and setting up bill pay. They use the branch for "consultation and support," rather than transactions. "We're changing because our member behavior is evolving," says Swindler, who sees the "Apple Store genius" as a model for the branch employee of the future. "We want to evolve to their needs."

Swindler set up a "think tank" as a way to empower employees to be part of the change and help create buy-in.

The group — mostly people on the frontline — would brainstorm ways to address whatever challenges arose as branches switched to the universal banker approach. Any employee could submit questions to be addressed.

Swindler says this turned out to be one of his best tactics. Instead of having management dictate how things should be done, he could tell employees, "You all have the power to make decisions." Though he set the strategy, they had responsibility for executing it.

"Everybody on the frontline had a voice through that," he says. "Their peers were helping solve the problems."

One challenge that came to the think tank — "We had a million of them," Swindler says — had to do with the layout of the branches. The space is still set up in a traditional way with teller windows for transactions and cubicles for more complicated tasks like opening certificates of deposit. "There are a lot of inefficiencies that come with that," Swindler says.

Some thought it too big an obstacle to overcome, as the credit union aimed to have one employee handle all of a customer's needs without any handoffs. Rather than employees at the teller window moving with the customer to a cubicle to handle some tasks, they often thought, "I'll just hand it off to someone sitting at the desk," Swindler says. "Well, that just defeated the purpose."

The solution is better communication, so that when one employee has to move away from the teller window, another employee fills the gap. "We call this 'lobby triage,'" Swindler says. "When traffic is slower, it's easy. When it's busy, that's when it gets crazy. So you have to be talking to your team: 'I'll be taking this customer over here. Someone needs to step up to the teller line.' You have to be interchangeable and flexible."

The new model has helped with expenses despite the higher salaries. Seven member consultants can serve a branch that once required the equivalent of 10 full-time employees (or FTEs). Through normal attrition — no layoffs — the credit union cut 16 FTEs last year for a savings of $900,000. Swindler projects it will cut another 10 FTEs this year for an additional savings of $500,000.

WSECU also is adopting a different design for new branches, with furniture that better facilitates the universal banker approach. It will use "pods" that have two work stations adjoined with a shared cash recycler in the middle. The work stations are set up to handle whatever a customer needs to do.

Two and a half years since making the decision to combine two job functions into one, Swindler says the Olympia, Wash., credit union is close to completing the transition.

"Now everybody is pretty much rowing in the same direction."

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