UMB Emulates Apple in Push to Encourage Mobile, Online Use

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UMB Bank is channeling its inner Apple to encourage more of its customers to use online and mobile banking.

The Kansas City, Mo., bank has begun designating tech support specialists in its branches whose job is to help customers understand and use digital services like mobile deposits and online bill pay.

The bank, one of the Midwest region's earliest adopters of online banking, has trained dozens of its bankers as "digital geniuses" and stationed them in the majority of its 111 branches. A customer looking for help using a digital channel can reserve a 15-minute, in-person session from a link on the bank's website.

The tech support program is reminiscent of Apple's in-store Genius Bar, where a customer can book an appointment with a product specialist to ask a technical question about, say an iPhone, or to schedule to attend a class on navigating tablets.

The $16.6 billion-asset UMB, a unit of UMB Financial, says its primary objective is to support its less tech-savvy customers, make them more aware of digital services available, and make them comfortable using digital channels for everyday transactions. Broadly, though, the initiative is seen as a way to strengthen ties with customers, and, in some cases, might even lead to sales of additional products and services.

Just as Apple hopes to build brand loyalty every time one of its in-store tech expert fixes a customer's problem, UMB is counting on its Digital Genius program to improve retention rates and, potentially, capture a larger share of the customer's wallet.

"In-branch traffic is going down across the country," says Christine Pierson, an executive vice present and head of UMB's financial consumer division "[We're] interested in ways to get customers to be engaged with the bank."

UMB is one of the few banks offering formal tech support appointments within its branches and also over the phone. The initiative is part of the bank's ongoing effort to leverage technology to improve and speed up service. The bank also runs a videoconferencing pilot within private rooms of three of its branches to try to save a customer time on lengthier transactions.

Like all banks, UMB is also eager to find ways to increase awareness of digital banking services.

When a new customer opens an account at U.S. Bank, for example, a staffer will demonstrate how to use online bill pay by making a donation to a charity. PNC Bank's newer concept branches come with iPad-equipped financial concierges who can show a customer how to use online services.

Such awareness efforts are increasingly important as banks continue to introduce more sophisticated features into their apps. KeyBank, for example, introduced an app that forecasts a customer's balance up until his next paycheck, while U.S. Bank lets customers pay a bill by snapping a photo of it using a smartphone.

Observers say offering such services is crucial as branches continue their transformation into sales and service hubs.

"It's about time they do it," says Bob Meara, a senior analyst in the banking group of Celent. "As store traffic drops, [banks] can stem the tide with good leads through booking."

UMB established the Digital Genius program in April in select branches and completed the roll out in mid-February. Now, UMB counts about 150 digital geniuses, or roughly one to two experts per branch, not including in-store locations.

Needham Bank in Massachusetts, Regions Bank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America are among the banks that let people book appointments with bankers via their websites.

TimeTrade, a Boston company that sells appointment booking software to banks, announced in mid-February that it inked 10 bank partnerships within an eight-month time period and expects one million banking appointments to be booked by yearend. (UMB Bank and Needham Bank both use the vendor.)

In time, the software could be used to help banks determine how to staff their branches, experts say.

Stessa Cohen, research director at Gartner, says that she envisions customers using appointment tools for a range of issues, not just tech support. For example, the bank could let a customer pre-stage a transaction through a mobile app and complete the task, like getting foreign currency, in the branch. "The future is using devices that help make people's lives easier," says Cohen.

At UMB, customers have booked roughly 3,000 in-branch digital genius appointments, says Pierson. Their most common questions: how to check balances and transactions on the go; monitor and send text alerts to kids' accounts; save time on paying bills; and catch fraud early.

Celent's Meara views UMB Bank's program as a smart move that will increase digital banking awareness - something most banks fail to do with their marketing dollars - and drive adoption.

UMB is not offering incentives to employees that sign customers up for digital services, but Pierson points out that some of the appointments could lead to sales, potentially generating rewards for staffers.

Apart from the Digital Genius program, UMB is also testing videoconferencing in select branches. The technology, which is powered by Cisco and has been in pilot since 2012, is aimed at saving customers time and feeling at ease with transactions that could take longer than simply depositing or withdrawing funds.

Holding up the line, for example, could make the customer feel uncomfortable, she says.

For the bank, such technology could reduce staffing costs and, like Digital Genius, could help to ensure that a customer is matched up with the right staffer at the right time.

"It's an efficient way to connect with a subject expert," says Pierson.

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