It takes a bit of trial and error to figure out how to best drive traffic to branches these days.

As it was renovating it flagship branch in Fairbanks, Alaska, Denali State Bank, for example, recently moved all the offices of its senior executives to the main level so that customers could interact directly with the bank’s decision makers.

A branch of Chelsea Groton Bank in Norwich, Conn., is undergoing a makeover of its own that will include a hotel concierge-style desk and rows of long tables with chairs, all in an effort to foster better face-to-face dialogue between customers and employees.

CEO Michael Rauh admits that the redesign may not catch on and could be discarded, but with branch visits continuing to decline as more and more customers bank electronically, standing pat was not an option, he said.

“We looked at our business model and decided we needed to look at our branches and figure out, ‘how do we get people to visit?’ said Rauh, whose bank has $1.1 billion of assets.

Of course, many banks are responding to the decline in branch visits by continuing to shutter underused branches.

According to data released by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. last week, the total number of branches in the U.S. declined by 2.2% in the 12-month period that ended June 30, to 89,857. It marked the first time since 2004 that the total number of branches fell below 90,000.

Yet branches still play a key role in attracting and retaining customers, and maximizing their potential ranks among banks executives’ top priorities these days. That was plainly evident at the BAI Beacon conference on retail delivery in Atlanta earlier this month, where bank executives eagerly huddled at panel discussions on branching strategies, jotting down ideas they gleaned from their peers.

Among the presenters was the $124 billion-asset Regions Financial in Birmingham, Ala., which recently finished refurbishing a branch in its hometown by shrinking the size from 11,000 square feet to 3,200, and adding a half-dozen smart ATMs and video teller machines.

During a presentation at the BAI conference, Stephen Griffin, Regions’ senior vice president of retail distribution strategy, acknowledged that the bank may have gone overboard with the ATMs.

“But we didn’t want our CEO walking through there and saying the redesign isn’t working” because there weren’t enough ATMs, he said.

Even so, technology is a crucial element of any branch initiative, said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Toronto design firm SLDNXT, who consulted Regions on its redesign. Customers better understand financial concepts if a banker can explain them in person using technology as a tool, he said.

“The digital platform is a great way to deliver consistent educational materials to customers,” Lacroix said. “You can’t do that in the conventional way. You can also track customers’ engagement in the digital world that you can’t do in a conventional branch.”

Though Chelsea Groton Bank will equip its branches with some digital tablets and ATMs, technology is not the focal point, Rauh said. Chelsea Groton hired Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Charlotte, N.C., to study the psychology of how consumers use bank branches to guide its new approach.

The design firm found that a bank branch should be an “environment that fosters learning, connecting and problem-solving,” said Daniel Montaño, creative director at Little, which has also redesigned space for Capital One Financial and Comerica.

The space includes long rows of tables where a bank employee and customer can talk and look at materials together; a station similar to a hotel concierge stand that facilities quick chats; and an espresso machine next to a breakfast bar.

“I think about it the way you think about a house; there are a bunch of different places to sit and have a conversation,” Rauh said. "The living room, the kitchen counter, the formal dining room. We tried to create as many of those spaces as we could.”

Chelsea Groton expects to re-open this new branch concept in December. After studying which elements work and which don’t, the bank will remodel its 13 other branches using some of the same concepts.

Steve Lundgren, the CEO at the $248 million-asset Denali State Bank, said he guided a recent renovation of its main office with an overriding goal of putting executives in a position to interact with customers face-to-face.

“We brought our entire executive management team down into the lobby to have more visibility and an emphasis on customer service,” Lundgren said. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves.”

Denali State Bank’s main office once looked like a traditional branch with a teller line and executive offices were stationed in the back, invisible to customers.

That had to change, Lundgren said. Denali contracted with the Seattle firm Element Group for a redesign plan. Now Denali’s employees are situated in the lobby, with no walls separating them from customers, enabling in-person conversations. Employees can also help customers learn how to sign up for Denali’s mobile phone app.

None of these fixes has reversed the trend of fewer customers coming into branches, Lundgren said. But customers tell Lundgren that they still want the option of walking into a branch to conduct business and those interactions, he said, are now more pleasant.

“It’s much easier to have a customer sit down at a table and explain to them how to use our app,” Lundgren said. “It’s not very friendly when you have to do that across the teller line.”

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