With credit unions and banks vying to be consumers' primary financial institution, how does the branch factor in?
One answer: in a post-banking crisis world, the design of a branch can be used to signal a fresh start. "What's interesting is that as the economy has gone down, there is, I feel, a sense of reassessment as far as how we compete in the future, who are we and how do we want to be perceived," said Paul Seibert, vice president of financial services at Seattle-based design/build firm EHS-Design. "Credit unions and banks want to shake off those old perceptions and create something new."
And they are drawing inspiration from some unlikely places.
"What we're seeing is that many are looking outside the financial services industry to retail stores, country clubs [and] even amusement parks to create not just some amazing designs but productive branches that deliver experiences in keeping with their true unique brand."
Seibert added that just having an attractive branch will not get people to come in and that credit unions should be careful in how they translate what works in other industries and apply it to their own. Paul Barrath, Clayco vice president of financial facilities, agreed and said that when it comes to branches that deliver, the sum matters more than the individual pieces.
"Spending time in the planning stage before making a decision even about location is critical and it pays to analyze the market, evaluating everything from competition to demographics," Barrath said. "We've seen some branches in high traffic areas that aren't successful because people don't want to stop in during rush hour traffic. So it's about taking a synergistic approach and putting all the individual elements such as location, market analysis, staff, convenience, brand experience and right delivery method together or that branch simply won't work."
According to Barrath, delivering the right ?products and services in a way that members value is key to building and deepening relationships and credit unions may have reasons to achieve different goals in each market served so branches can be structured accordingly.
That customized branching approach has proved successful at Endicott, N.Y.-based Visions Federal Credit Union.
"We've got 24 branches and for the last 12 years we've tried to design to fit the community," President/CEO Frank Berrish said. "We don't want a rectangle that looks like every other financial institution--we want to give members the wow effect."
For example, in 1998, the more than $2 billion credit union opened a branch in Pennsylvania that was designed to look like a lodge in a community where sportsman fishing was popular. A facility in wine country resembles a winery and features a mosaic, and an inner city branch in Syracuse features a classroom to provide financial literacy courses. Recently the credit union renovated a freestanding bank branch to target Gen Y in University Plaza, a retail hub for Binghamton University students which includes everything from a sports bar and Five Guys Burgers to a health food store, Cold Stone Creamery and off-campus student housing.
With an eye toward attracting students, the branch offers free WiFi and features a Music Caf? that has headsets hanging from the ceiling, a floor-to-ceiling telephone pole that serves as a community bulletin board and flat screen televisions that air sports and news as well as credit union marketing messages. The credit union has also launched a microsite, VisionsFCURocks.org, where students can learn more about contests such as a Guitar Hero competition or products and services categorized by age. Berrish said the overall goal is to have eight accounts per household and Visions has gone from 3.5 to more than 5.1.
DEI Design Architect Thomas Montchai said that in these uncertain times, branches should be designed to give members a sense of security. "The whole purpose of a branch ultimately is to drive sales, get new members and deepen the relationships with existing members, and the length of stay in a branch is important," he said. "Given the discontent with the economy a welcoming environment is even more important than it was to squelch fears. There's an opportunity now to create that environment and through branded retail design and staff interaction offer a real destination reinforcing the idea that this institution is here to stay."
Seibert urged credit unions to take the long view and avoid basing their brand experience on technology that will change.
"It can be engaging, efficient and productive but don't build technology to the point of replacing core relationship building," he said. "Technology is a delivery channel so what's cool today will be replaced with something cooler later. When people walk into a branch it's because they want that interaction with people, otherwise they'd conduct their business online, over the phone or at the ATM."
An attention to the member experience has helped Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based Bridgeway Federal Credit Union increase its net membership by more than 2% since 2009. On average, the number of new members opening accounts at the credit union's new branch has exceeded the number of new members opening accounts at its headquarters.
According to Marketing Director ?Melissa Walsh, long before opening the doors to Bridgeway FCU's second branch, the marketing team was busy building awareness through direct mailings and guerrilla marketing.
"We went out on foot to residents in the surrounding area and placed these blue bags filled with information about who we are, pens and brochures next to each mailbox so all you saw was a sea of blue," Walsh said. "It gave us a lot of exposure and to help create some buzz we also brought breakfast to local businesses. Ultimately we knew we needed to get buy-in from the community so we wanted to be sure to get that awareness and help them understand who we are before opening."
The branch interior further reinforced that locals were dealing with a different type of financial institution with its dialogue banking, caf? area with freshly baked cookies and cross-trained staffers who can provide a one-stop shopping experience. The imagery drawn from the local area used in the branch also plays up the credit union's community connections. Walsh said it also helps that the credit union was one of the first businesses to go into an underserved area that was abandoned for many years and serve as the anchor for a new plaza that has rejuvenated the area.
"We've shown that we're invested in the community and now we've helped enable some other small businesses to come in because we brought in the traffic," Walsh said. "So the imagery, the smell of the cookies and coffee, friendly atmosphere the whole experience ties into that we're their local credit union and we try to create a nice member experience."
She added that rather than letting new members just open an account and leave, branch staffers ask questions to develop a profile to help determine how Bridgeway can best meet the needs of individuals in the community.
Barrath said striving for that deeper connection is key. "All members expect services today but when you build relationships then you create opportunities for members to use other services and think of your credit union first when they have an investment or loan need and follow up with a call or a visit to your credit union."
Motorola Federal Credit Union upgraded its main branch to be more in keeping with its brand position, a change President/CEO John Fiore said has had a positive impact. Using dialogue towers and a sales staff focused on engaging members has given the credit union an edge with the competition.
Seibert said that training staff to be personable should take precedence over creating an attractive branch. "Members don't want processors," he said. "They want people to say 'Hi' who are knowledgeable. The staff is key to creating a brand experience. Think of it this way: No matter how great a bike is, if it isn't being ridden it's no good. So it isn't about spending huge amounts of money on a 'brand' but investing in the people. The design environment created is there to provide the background for the staff to engage members."
Experts agree that credit unions should use the economic downturn as an opportunity to identify their brand and story and figure out where they want to be in five to 15 years. From that starting point they can then create an environment that supports that vision.