A few recent visits to a branch for personal banking business got me reflecting on one of my favorite topics: universal bankers.
For well over a decade, I have promoted the strengths of universal bankers. They are the ultimate multitasker within a branch, able to assist someone at the ATM as easily they sign someone up for a loan. The job description is similar to the slightly different position, but also well-established, of "in-store banker."
Regardless of the name for these versatile bankers, technology advances are forcing the banking industry to establish other positions within a financial institution that mimic this in-store staffing model. Smaller, multi-tasking teams are the new normal. I worry, however, that many are underestimating what it takes to make this model truly work. Too many "universal" employees are lacking universal banking skills.
A big part of fitting the profile of a universal banker is to be engaging. Effective marketing, conveying the institution's culture, comes from proactive engagement with customers. That is true inside the branch or when the branch is not the destination for the sea of customers around you.
But perhaps the more important part of making the model work is the second word in the title. In addition to be universal, you must also be an actual, competent banker. The best sales instinct and friendliest smiles in the world will likely not get your bank far unless there are competent bankers behind them.
Universal bankers must be able to help customers with a multitude of technical tasks and complex problem resolutions that require knowledge beyond sales expertise. It has been my experience, however, that many seem to underestimate what it takes to develop true universal banker teams.
On one of my recent branch visits, I needed to make a simple modification to a small business account. When I had opened the account, I had been told that it would be easy to add a "doing-business-as" — or DBA — name to the account at a later time.
When I entered the branch to do this, a woman left her desk to greet me quickly and offer assistance. But when I told her what I was there to do, she paused for a second and said she thought I'd have to close my existing account and open a new one.
I immediately thought back to the almost 90-minute process of opening that first account and said, "That's not what we're going to do. I'm pretty sure this is a simple thing. In fact, one of your bankers told me this was no big deal."
She took a moment and said I would need to speak to Mary because "she knows a lot more about small business accounts."
A little taken aback and somewhat annoyed, I turned to where Mary was seated. Not only did Mary have a customer with her, but there was also another customer waiting in the lobby to see her.
I sat down in the lobby and realized there were three customers and five employees in the branch. Two cordial, smiling folks were behind a teller line and three bankers were at desks in the lobby.
One banker, who had no customer at his desk, got up a few minutes later to go to lunch. The young woman I had first spoken with had returned to her desk to make phone calls. And the rest of us waited on Mary.
During that time, I decided that if they were actually going to make me close my account to open a new one, they would only do the first part of that procedure. The new account was going to be opened at another institution.
A little over 10 minutes later, Mary walked over to bring me to her desk. As I explained what I needed to have done it became apparent that Mary was not 100% sure how to handle the seemingly simple request either. She called a support desk and we made small talk while she waited on hold.
When someone answered two or three minutes later, the process we needed to complete took about two minutes to explain and one minute to complete. Mary was nice and apologized for my wait. Both she and the misinformed person I had interacted with first were friendly toward me during the entire process.
But friendly wasn't the thought that stayed with me. Confusion and bad information were.
I know that bank pretty well. It has a solid operation with great technology and a branch location that is very convenient for me. But that experience did little to increase my comfort level that I was in good hands.
While physical branches remain of paramount importance to small businesses, there is little doubt that our branch teams will be smaller in the future. While branch teams grow smaller, the individual jobs of employees will get bigger.
Universal banker teams must be universally well-versed on the common questions, requests and problems faced by the incredibly important small business customer segment. Properly executed, a universal banking model will keep branches the relationship-building, profit centers of their institutions. Strive to ensure your own universal bankers truly represent both parts of the title.
Dave Martin is the founder of the retail bank performance company bankmechanics. He can be reached at email@example.com.