Why this bank turns its branches into classrooms

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Chelsea Groton Bank in Connecticut frequently transforms its 14 branches into craft stations, dog adoption centers and even makeshift hair salons.

The $1.1 billion-asset mutual bank has developed a robust program of classes and special events over the years that extends beyond typical financial literacy subjects. The programming, which was recently rebranded as Chelsea University, is a way to give back to the community and strengthen relationships with clients and prospects, according to the bank.

It is not as far afield from the bank's business interests as it sounds, observers said.

“People still bank with people," said Randy Dennis, president of DD&F Consulting Group. "Plus, it gets back to the idea of making your customers successful.”

Offering classes and events could also be a way to entice customers to visit a bank’s branches, said Steven Reider, president of Bancography, a marketing and branch-planning adviser in Birmingham, Ala.

“So branches are naturally seeing less traffic, and bankers find fewer opportunities to interact with their customers and to learn about their changing needs,” Reider said. “Events such as ‘lifestyle’ classes bring people to the branch, to remind the customer the bank is there and reinforce relationships between bankers and customers.”

A number of banks are expanding educational programming beyond financial literacy, said Lindsay LaNore, group executive vice president at the Independent Community Bankers of America.

"People bank differently today," LaNore said. "That shift is triggering ways for banks to connect with their customers differently ... to get them to think about the bank throughout the day, not only for personal finance but also for their personal growth."

Chelsea Groton has offered education programs in schools and community organizations for nearly 15 years, but it recently expanded the offerings to an online platform. The bank partnered with iGrad in San Diego to launch Enrich, an interactive online financial literacy platform.

Lori Dufficy, Chelsea Groton’s executive vice president and director of sales and service, said that offering classes and programming online allows the bank to reach more people who may not have time or availability to attend classes in person.

“The need is so great,” Dufficy said. “When people give us feedback and say, ‘We love what you do with your community education program,’ I’ll ask them if they’ve been to class and they say, ‘No, I don’t have time.’ ”

The bank offers courses and programs to strengthen community members’ understanding of finances. Chelsea Groton has one full-time educator and had to recruit eight other employees to teach, too, to meet the demand.

“We actually had to invite some other team members at the bank interested in volunteering in the community and who have a passion for education,” Dufficy said. “We dubbed them Chelsea educators.”

While many banks engage in financial literacy programs, Chelsea Groton also started offering lifestyle classes in 2017.

Each of the bank’s branches has a budget to offer unique classes ranging from holiday craft making to painting. Each branch holds about four classes per year, Dufficy said. She declined to say how much the bank spends to provide the classes.

Customers, branch employees and their guests typically attend the lifestyle classes. The events could be seen as a customer retention or recruitment tool, although Dufficy said that the company does not put on a hard sell at the lifestyle classes.

“It’s about getting to know people and building rapport,” Dufficy said. “That’s when people trust you enough to start asking you questions.”

Community engagement is one more option among a bank’s possible marketing strategies, Reider said.

“It’s one more way to build brand awareness and positive image and one more way to drive traffic to the branch,” Reider said. “It doesn’t need to be a hard sell; it’s enough to have a few prompts so that the next time the attendee has a financial need, this bank emerges in the forefront of their mind.”

Last year Chelsea Groton redesigned one of its existing branches into an education center. The goal was to create a comfortable environment for customers and prospects to learn how to manage their finances, complete with a classroom setup and a library. The company has plans to incorporate aspects of the education center into its other branches over time.

“It’s just a way to differentiate ourselves and really showcase our offerings,” Dufficy said. “We are teaching people how to use these tools in the most effective way. It’s a great opportunity for us to share.”

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