A comment my younger son made on a recent drive home from school had me chuckling and telling him he sounded like me talking to bankers. And no, we weren't discussing network optimization or technology adoption rates.
His history class held a reenactment of the Battle of the Alamo. The weapons of choice were water balloons. As opposed to the actual battle, the sides were pretty evenly numbered.
In fact, there may have been even more combatants in the makeshift Alamo than in the ranks of the "enemy forces." Lots of kids wanted to defend the mission.
Ever the flexible one, my son said he didn't care which side he was on as long as he got to throw water balloons at people. So, he became one of the attacking troops.
I asked him how the battle had gone, and he said, "Oh, we annihilated them. I didn't even get wet." I followed, "Yeah, but was it a hard battle?"
He said, "No. It turns out that when your competition stays in the same place, they're pretty easy to beat." I grinned and told him that I've been saying that to bankers forever.
He replied, "Cool," which actually meant he didn't really understand what I was saying and didn't care enough to want to find out. Ah, parenthood.
Granted, my "We have to get bankers out of the branch" mantra predates him. It began 20 years ago on my first job in banking. As the branch manager of an in-store location, you quickly learn that great opportunities for new relationships are out there, but they aren't going to be walking up to your counter.
The 20 feet between you and potential customers may as well be 20 miles if you never step out and create opportunities to make new friends, and eventually, new customers.
About a decade ago, I began suggesting to traditional branch folks that an in-store branch mindset may be beneficial to them, as well. The writing was pretty much on the wall even then. Even before online and mobile banking gained the traction they have in recent years, customers' bank-shopping behaviors were changing.
Fewer customers were walking into branches to learn about a bank's offerings. More and more were doing most of their researching (shopping) online and only walking into a branch once their decisions had primarily been made. Our people were being cut out of customers' decision processes.
I continually bumped up against the mindset that "getting out of the branch" sounded good but was impractical. And besides, we rely on marketing to drive customer traffic into our branches.
My counterargument usually included listing a few major bank players and asking, "So you think you're going to outmarket those guys over the long haul? Good luck."
Ask a thousand bank managers what makes their bank a better choice than the competition, and about nine hundred and fifty will tell you "our people." I won't argue that.
In an increasingly commoditized industry, our people can be one of the few true differentiators left. But the model that has them forever sitting in buildings that fewer and fewer people utilize makes less strategic sense each year.
The term "universal banker" has become pretty ubiquitous. Universal bankers (usually) can handle anything from assisting with a teller transaction, to opening an account, to performing varying levels of financial needs analysis.
My humble suggestion is that we begin more aggressively expanding our universal bankers' universes. The four walls of ever-shrinking bank branches are pretty small universes, indeed.
It's generally accepted protocol of successful in-store bankers that a portion of team members' workweeks should be spent out, away from the branch, making new acquaintances and solidifying existing ones. That isn't simply the manager's job.
In fact, it's managers who frequently have the most pressing duties keeping them behind a desk at any given moment. It's often members of the frontline team who initiate the most interactions away from the branch.
While the environments obviously vary, I'd suggest that the "go to where the people are" practice is making more sense for traditional branch teams every day. (Heck, they can practically "take the bank" anywhere with tablets and smartphones.)
Whether it's the occasional morning spent visiting local businesses or manning promotional kiosks/tables away from their branches, opportunities multiply exponentially when our teams are occasionally untethered from their home bases.
We continue to modify and transform our facilities and technologies. Maybe it's time to be as forward-thinking in reengineering the roles of our teams. Mobile banking might be our future. Mobile bankers just may be, as well.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.