Fifteen years ago, a banker friend and I met for the first time as conference participants on an in-store banking panel. Sharing a ride to the airport afterward, we marveled at how some bankers in the audience had seemed almost insulted by the notion that these could be considered "real branches."
I recently reunited with that friend, and we found ourselves laughing at how much the banking industry has changed in the intervening yearsbut some perceptions haven't. When a financial institution announces that it's exiting in-store branches, industry insiders tend to assume that performance issues must be the fault of the in-store channelnot the individual organization's execution of it.
Yet more than a few highly respected banks and credit unions run productive and profitable in-store branches and programs. That alone should be evidence of their viability. A quote from George Bernard Shaw comes to mind: "People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
My friend's current role as an executive at a large regional bank doesn't involve in-store locations. But she was quick to point out that her experience with them and her respect for in-store best practices influences her managing style and strategic decisions to this day. She insists that her in-store experience has prepared her for the present challenges of her brick-and-mortar branches even more than her traditional experience has.
We also chuckled about the current "hot trends" of microbranches and universal bankers. It's not the concepts we find funny. It's the idea that these are somehow new to the banking industry that's a bit humorous.
In presentations to banking groups, I often show them a Polaroid picture of me in my first banking job as a branch manager of an in-store location. The caption reads, "A rare photo of a universal banker in the wild, circa 1994." I also kid these groups that the roles of today's universal bankers aren't as all-encompassing as they used to be.
I was a manager, loan officer, new accounts opener, teller, vault and ATM balancer, marketing director, janitor, part-time security guard, chief hand-shaker and baby-kisser. Having never worked (or even contemplated working) for a bank before, it all seemed normal to me. So did being open until 7 p.m. and working on weekends and "bank holidays."
And whether or not I was working directly with in-store locations over the past 20 or so years, the in-store mind-set has remained in my banker DNA.
People don't bank with buildings. They bank with people. It's up to us to make those connections happen. If you are going to succeed in an in-store branch, you need to find ways to engage folks who would otherwise have little reason to interact with you.
People go to grocery stores because they are out of milk or are running low on paper towels. But they are never "out of" or "running low" on their current bank. They aren't shopping for the products and services banks offer. There are thousands of people in an in-store's "lobby" each week, but visiting the branch isn't on their to-do list.
That said, I do get a kick whenever I hear a banker or consultant dismiss in-store branches because grocery shoppers are not there to shop for banking products. Well, of course they aren't.
But folks also aren't shopping for banking products when they're driving to work or visiting a social media site or attending a football game. And yet I see evidence that banks are trying to interest and reach current and potential customers in all of these places.
In today's environment, even folks walking into brick-and-mortar bank branches usually aren't shopping for banking products. They are there to conduct a transaction or resolve a problemnot exactly to peruse the financial services menu.
Successful in-store bankers know that engaging branch designs and creative marketing tactics are great tools to create customer awareness. But in the end, success hinges on the moving parts of the branchits people.
We have to earn customers' attention. We have to create opportunities to interact with them and earn the right to explain who we are and all we offer. We have to give them reasons to like us and consider becoming our customers.
Technology and shifting customer preferences now make small branches and smaller, multitasking teams more productive than ever. And whether in-store, on-site or microbranches are part of a bank's branch mix, the in-store-branch mind-set (DNA, if you will) is a smart one to develop.
People will stay with bankers they know and like or leave their current institutions to do business with them. Banks need to continually strive to put their best people in places and positions to make that possible.
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @instorebank.