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Tech-savvy branches still rely on people-savvy workers

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One of my best friends in the banking industry recently shared her experiences with her bank’s newest branch format. It is likely as state-of-the-art as any branch in the country today.

All the bells and whistles are there. It is visually stunning and features impressive self-service technology. I reviewed pictures of this new prototype, and it seemed to check all the boxes of what banks are looking for in their new designs these days. It offers a nice combination of open spaces and cozy settings. The digital marketing within the branch is visually captivating, and the branding pieces are outstanding.

Yet the thing that most stood out to her was the employees of the branch. She proudly described the way those workers greeted customers and interacted with them like guests — and not like “transactions.”

As we spoke, it became obvious to me that the manager and team chosen for this new facility were no accident. The bank was not about to roll out a high-profile new branch with anything but top-notch employees.

This most recent example reminded me of similar “rollout” scenarios I’ve seen over the past two decades at dozens of different banks. Whenever a new branch design or prototype is launched, it is almost always the new layouts and technology being implemented that get the lion’s share of the publicity.

This is understandable. New designs and technology tend to come with high price tags and represent (at least a little) business risk. Upper and middle management tend to put their reputations on the line when making relatively big and high-profile investments in new branch formats.

But almost without fail, I find that it is the “moving parts” of these branches — the teams of employees — that most influence a branch’s initial and long-term success.

The new designs may be brilliant. The new technologies may be brilliant, even transformational, and yet without informed and engaged teams, these branches tend to be less than brilliant or transformational in their performance.

A friend at a large regional branch shared with me an example a few years back. After months at the drawing board, his bank opened one of their first “cashless” branches.

The branch was beautiful and the technologies in place were impressive by anyone’s standards. Yet the branch was initially a failure. After a few months of waiting for results to improve, some in his organization began openly discussing retrofitting the branch with teller drawers.

Before doing that, someone thought to spend a little time with the staff in that new branch. And they soon realized that these were not an especially engaged group of people — to say the least. They were not comfortable with or enthusiastic about the self-service technologies their branch now offered, and it showed.

The bank tapped a high-performing manager to run that branch and permitted him to make whatever changes needed to his team. Within six months, the location became one of the bank’s top performers, even though nothing about the branch format had changed.

Instead of apologizing to customers for the new technology, the team enthusiastically showed people how these changes were going to make their banking experiences easier and more rewarding. They also stressed to customers that the branch team was always going to be there to help if needed.

My friend jokingly borrowed my phrase to describe them. He said the branch team became the “friendly human interface of an online operation.”

There is no denying that the design, placement, technology and staffing models of our branches are changing. I would argue, however, that what is not changing is the central role our best employees will play in growing customer relationships and driving our branches’ success.

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