Time was when branches were the bread and butter of a bank's retail operations.
Banks collected deposits, doled out loans, sold certificates of deposit, and rented safety deposit boxes through well-staffed networks of branch offices, which typically remained open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., weekdays.
But that's all changed now. New products and services and new avenues of access have rendered banking an anything-anytime-anyplace proposition and have forced bankers to find new ways of selling products and filling customer service requirements.
"The really progressive banks are those that are trying to change the brick and mortar branches from a service environment to a sales environment," said David Lott, senior associate at Dove Associates, Atlanta.
The way to do that, according to Mr. Lott, is through innovative data base technologies that let banks quickly and easily gain access to customer profiles.
Take, for example, Bank of Boston Corp. It is a $45.3 billion-asset institution serving 850,000 households through 280 branches, 350 automated teller machines, a 24-hour telephone banking service, and personal computer-based home banking services.
The fact that the bank offers so many avenues of service, according to Tom Hollister, group executive for retail and small-business banking, bodes well for its ability to build market share in the short term.
But to retain market share requires more than being able to support multiple access points. So Bank of Boston has developed and installed a data base system that gives platform representatives instant access to a full profile of any customer with whom they come into contact - either in person or by telephone.
No longer must bank employees traverse multiple data bases in order to help customers, said Kevin Roden, Bank of Boston's director of consumer banking systems. Now, they can view on one screen a customer's total relationship with the bank.
So for example, if a customer has a CD coming due, the customer service representative, when responding to a customer query, even on an unrelated issue, can use that information to nudge the customer into investing in another CD, a mutual fund, or some other bank product.
"Getting information to a place where customer representatives can access it quickly is an imperative," said Mr. Roden. Indeed, he added, information is crucial to customer retention.
"Customers leave a bank because of problems, and problems occur because of the inadequacy of the customer representative they come into contact with," Mr. Roden said. "Taking care of requests at the point of contact minimizes the amount of problems we'll have later, and bodes well for retention."
It's important to remember, however, that the point of contact between customers and their banks is not always a traditional branch.
Although a core group of consumers - about 65%, by most estimates - prefer to do business in a brick and mortar branch, growing numbers like the convenience and anonymity of other avenues of access.
Most consumers, in fact, prefer to use at least two avenues of access, according to Mr. Hollister; only about 20% to 25% are branch-only customers. "The larger banks have to have all channels available," he said.
"Where you can encourage people to less expensive delivery channels, you have a winning strategy," said Bob Landry, technology analyst at the Tower Group, a Wellesley, Mass. consulting firm.
David Owen, senior vice president for retail administration at Huntington National Bank, Columbus, Ohio, agreed. Huntington is in the midst of a massive reconfiguration of its banking presence in Columbus.
Customers in other Ohio cities will also soon see changes in the way they gain access to their Huntington accounts.
The savings Huntington can realize from its branch system reconfiguration are instructive. Many branch offices that once employed six to 12 full-time employees each can be staffed with one person through the innovative use of technology, Mr. Owen explained.
Huntington, which already has gone the route of in-branch PC automation and a full-service, 24-hour call center, is now deploying futuristic branch offices with live, interactive banking capabilities but only one employee during traditional banking hours. It's that employee's job to teach customers how to use the machines and to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
Only three restrictions are placed on customers doing business at the new "access branches," as Huntington has dubbed them: no money order purchases, no coin purchases, and limited amounts of cash can be withdrawn. Everything else, from applying for a loan to making a deposit to investing in a mutual fund is available, Mr. Owen said.
A new-generation branch costs about 30% less than a traditional one, Mr. Owen estimated.
Huntington's strategy is based upon careful analysis of its markets, Mr. Owen said. Existing brick and mortar structures will remain in those neighborhoods where customers, for example, older people, are less comfortable with electronic banking.
Access branches are planned for upscale neighborhoods, where customers are time-poor and comfortable with technology. About 20% to 30% of all branches eventually will be access branches, Mr. Owen said. "We want to give our customers a choice," he said.
What Huntington is doing resembles what has come to be known as kiosk banking in many European countries. Boxley Llewellyn, manager of retail delivery solutions at International Business Machines Corp., Charlotte, N.C., said he sees great promise in kiosk banking in the United States.
The trend, he said, will be driven by competition, customers' time restraints, and a desire for financial privacy.
"Although people like to talk to humans, there are certain things people would rather talk to machines about," observed Mr. Llewellyn, for example, checking the balance in an account with meager or nonexistent funds.
Mr. Lott of Dove Associates, however, said he believes the vast majority of bank customers want at least some human interaction.
"A significant share of customers want that impact," he said, "especially on complicated products or processes. They want some human assistance."
And people, he suggested, can sell better than can machines. "Banks should be using people to promote a sales environment and moving transactions to remote bank applications," he observed.
Specialized data bases, like the one developed by Bank of Boston, can help on this count. So can interactive banking services, like those offered by Huntington.
The idea, according to the bankers who have embraced these approaches to selling, is to interact with the customer using the most up-to-date information available to properly target sales presentations.
PCs with graphical interfaces aid in the presentation, helping to grab the customer's attention with details of how a particular decision would pan out over time.
And electronic forms and rate schedules help keep all the accoutrements of banking at the sales representative's fingertips.
These, said Mr. Llewellyn, are the types of technologies and processes most bankers think of when they consider customer contact in an era of branch automation.
But ultimately, he said, more banks are likely to go the way of Huntington. He even suggested that, someday, banks might be able to justify interactive television access from a customer's home.
"I see a frenzy of activity in providing higher levels of service in order for banks to hold on to existing customers, and to offer services that position the bank more as a financial adviser," said Mr. Llewellyn.
But to accomplish that, banks must examine their technology backbones. "Consumers have come to expect good technology," said Bank of Boston's Mr. Hollister.
"That's why we've bitten the bullet," he said, and embarked on a mission to automate the bank's branches.
But automation simply for the sake of automating is not enough, warned Mr. Lott. Banks must have sufficient access to customer information to support the sale of products.
"A lot of the benefit of automation," said Mr. Lott, "is in having the information available at the banking representative's fingertips."
It's all a matter of fostering sales. And like any other retailing endeavor, selling is what banking is all about.
Ms. Murphy is a freelance writer based in Takoma Park, Md.