Smaller branches, more versatile staff: Citizens Bank's new normal

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Even before the coronavirus pandemic locked down much of the economy, Citizens Financial Group, like many banks, had been shrinking its branch footprint and transforming existing branches into "advice centers," where customers go for financial guidance rather than to complete transactions that can otherwise be done through digital channels.

CEO Bruce Van Saun says these trends will only accelerate now that customers, out of necessity, have become more comfortable depositing checks remotely using their mobile phones. He sees the role of branch employees evolving as well, with some moving to virtual locations and being trained to provide a broad range of services and others taking on more specialized roles advising wealth management clients and business owners.

"Those are the kinds of things we're thinking about that are a little bit out of the box," Van Saun, who is also chairman of the $177 billion-asset company, said in a recent interview with American Banker.

Van Saun and his leadership team are also spending a great deal of time thinking about how to safely bring employees who have been working remotely since March back to Citizens' corporate campus near its Providence, R.I., headquarters and other offices throughout the country. They are considering a range of options, though Van Saun says no employees will be required to return to work until they feel they're ready.

What follows are Van Saun's views on what Citizens' new normal will look like. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

"We're only going to invite people back to work," says Bruce Van Saun, the chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group. "It's not going to be compulsory."
"We're only going to invite people back to work," says Bruce Van Saun, chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group. "It's not going to be compulsory."

Are you seeing this pandemic change the way banking is done across the board, and if so, how?

BRUCE VAN SAUN: I do think there will be changes. I think the individuals who have moved to greater use of digital like the convenience. They avoid having to take a trip to the branch to deposit a check. They’ve realized they can just take a picture on their smartphone. So I think you'll see less foot traffic in the branches, and that has implications for how we run our channels. We need more digitization of the bank and better digital tools. We may not need as much physical distribution. We've been on this path already. We’ve been turning our branches into advice centers, with nicer facilities, smaller meeting rooms and upskilling the folks that we have in the branches who can be knowledgeable about multiple products and providing advice. This is going to be accelerated, based on the events of the past couple of months.

When you say you're going to do more upskilling of people in the branches, do you know what that will look like or what kinds of new skills and maybe new jobs those people might get?

I’ll give you one example. In our contact centers, we had outsourced certain simple questions, like password resets, to offshore centers. When the pandemic hit globally, many of those centers were shut down. We took our branches, where we had reduced the hours, and rapidly trained those people up to bolster the contact center. They have to have fairly broad knowledge about what our overall objectives are, what our products are and be in a position to offer advice.

What we're thinking about now is, should we even bring back those offshore centers? If we're not going to need as much physical presence in the branches, should we put some of those branch-based people into virtual centers where they can do outbound contacting of customers? Those are the kinds of things we're thinking about that are a little bit out of the box. How do we maintain that connection virtually if we're not going to have as much interaction physically in the branch.

You mentioned turning branches into advice centers. What will those be like?

That’s been an ongoing program for us to create specialties in areas like wealth and small business. People who are generalists in the branches are now getting training to offer specialized advice. So you're trying to put those folks in a position where they can have productive conversations with people on life's journey and try and help them meet life's challenges and offer our full set of products and services.

When you think about leading through a crisis, what do you think are the keys to keeping everything running smoothly when there are so many changes — for instance, Citizens built a new lending platform for the Paycheck Protection Program in 11 days, it crafted forbearance programs — during a time when most people are working from home?

I think it starts with having a great leadership team that are all on the same page and aligned with what needs to get done. There's a high level of trust with the leaders, because I as CEO can't be everywhere all the time. So having folks who have been through the wars before, have good judgment and can react to or anticipate situations and then convene the group as needed to discuss what they're seeing, that’s been a key. And then, just having flexible thinking in terms of, we've got a challenge here, what are the different ways that we can tackle that challenge? And being able to pivot resources.

For example, with PPP, we knew that this was going to be big and it was going to be really important to customers to get them their lifeline. And it was going to be important to us and our reputation that we were able to secure the funding. If we were shut out, it really wouldn't look good for us as an organization. So we said, "Let's pull some of our best people across the bank, regardless of where they are [and]make sure things are going in the right direction."

How do you look at reopening for Citizens? Are you in a hurry to get people back into offices and back into branches as soon as you can? Do you feel more cautious about that? Do you think that there might be roles that just stay work-from-home permanently?

We'd like to participate in the reopening of the economy, but go at the pace that the individual states allow us to go. So we've had plans for every state. We're going to follow social distancing. We'll bring people back probably in thirds, one week on, two weeks off.

We're only going to invite people back to work. It's not going to be compulsory. There are a lot of folks who are itching to get back to work. There are other folks who are still quite fearful or have health conditions that they're a little worried about coming back to the office. So we're going to take that into account.

But I do think there are advantages to having our people who now are working remotely come back into the office, be able to interact with their fellow colleagues and collaborate and challenge each other and generate good ideas. That helps maintain the social fabric and the culture of the company. It may not be that we have everybody come back. We may have some people work three days in the office, two days off, so we still have the requisite amount of social distancing. I'm in favor of opening the economy smartly, and then bringing our people back in a smart and prudent fashion.

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