Customer branch visits keep going down, but executives who oversee investment programs at banks and credit unions say the slowing foot traffic is working out well from their perspective.

The decline in walk-ins is prompting better training for branch staff on the art of making proper referrals, while pushing advisers to be more resourceful and proactive, the program managers say.

Britt Woods, who runs Fifth Third Bank's investment program in Kentucky and Tennessee, says he does not foresee any problems from what he predicts will be a 20% drop in branch traffic this year.

"It doesn't worry me because we still have a client base," he says. "If we were losing 10% of our clients, then I'd be concerned."

The reason Woods can shrug off such a dramatic change in volume is because he has trained his team of advisers not to rely on walk-in traffic but rather on relationships they've established with personal bankers and branch managers.

He says successful advisers work the phones and book appointments, rather than waiting for people to come in off the street.

Woods encourages advisers to follow what he calls the "10 by 10 rule": make 10 phone calls before 10 a.m. He also encourages them to have a minimum of four appointments a day on their calendar.

He supports these efforts on an ongoing basis by providing them with a list of top depositors and certificate of deposit holders.

At Community Bank in DeWitt, N.Y., investment program manager Paul Restante helped advisers segment their books of business and encouraged them to cross-sell as much as possible to their best clients. He also trained them on how to get qualified referrals from existing clients and how to make inroads with lawyers, accountants, business leaders and other centers of influence.

"By getting out there and forming those relationships, they've been able to supplement the lack of foot traffic through what I think are better and highly qualified referrals," Restante says.

The number of referrals from branches is down across the industry, which is bad news for advisers whose "lifeblood" is foot traffic, he says. But the advisers at Community Bank "completely understand that the game is different and that they can't live or die solely on foot traffic referrals."

Leo Iacobelli, a program manager at ESL Federal Credit Union in Rochester, N.Y., says he has seen an increase in the quality of referrals even as the volume of referrals has fallen. "Sometimes less is more," he says.

Slower foot traffic has freed up branch employees who once were busy helping customers with routine tasks like cashing checks. Now the staff has "more discretionary time" to interact with customers and uncover their financial needs, Iacobelli says.

The benefit for advisers is that they spend less time with people who don't need their services. They have gone from back-to-back appointments to five or six a day, all with greater potential, according to Iacobelli.

This gives them more time to help branch staff become better profilers and lead generators, and more opportunities to work with existing clients. "It has made their day much more productive than what it was in the past," Iacobelli says.

Based on the revenue generated, the investment programs at Fifth Third, Community Bank and ESL Federal are no worse off. All three institutions say revenue is up, in ESL's case by as much as 50% over the past three years. Each one also added advisers last year, even as branch traffic swooned.

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