Down, Not Out? Branch Count Shows Shift in Service Delivery
In the call to bring out your dead, don’t be so quick to toss branches on top of the heap of abandoned projects.
“If you look purely at the number of credit union branches in operation, there has been a steady decline that is likely to continue into the future. This is being driven by an increase in the number of banking channels to which members have access, including online banking, mobile banking and peer-to-peer lending,” said Michael Downs, vice president of marketing at Momentum, a design firm based in Seattle and Pittsburgh. “However, the branch is far from dead.”
Rather than going away, Downs said branches are evolving in how they’re used by credit unions to deliver services. There are numerous surveys that demonstrate that members prefer to use a branch for certain types of interactions, and in fact, would change institutions if their branches went away, he added.
The $1.8 billion Madison, Wis.-based Summit Credit Union has certainly explored re-imagining the branch with its Fitchburg location. The facility has been transformed into an Inspiration Branch, complete with full 3-D dreams and goals brought to life.
“When we are young, we dream big dreams and sometimes, as we age, they fall by the wayside of our busy lives,” said Kim Sponem, CEO/president of Summit. “We have re-imagined what’s possible to support our members’ financial wellness. In a dramatic, cost-effective and innovative way, we’ve brought dreams to life in our new Inspiration Branch to remind people of their dreams and to energize and inspire action.”
Flowing from one true-to-life scenario to another, the settings inside the branch range from a segment of a home that features a breakfast nook and girl’s bedroom, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a beach scene complete with beach chairs, umbrella and a real sailboat, to a section of a life-sized airliner, featuring real doors and seats from a former working aircraft.
Sponem began brainstorming the ideation for the inspiration concept more than two years ago with Becky Gerothanas, Summit senior vice president of operations, on how they could make the idea come to life. In addition to showcasing quintessential 3-D images of common dreams including home ownership, education and travel, the branch was designed with an open and informal concept. There are no traditional teller lines as a way to further reinforce the feeling of creating a fun, innovative environment for members.
The inspiration façades have been designed by Strang Architects, and built by general contractor Findorff in collaboration with a team of theatre professionals. The facades are completely removable, like a stage set, and do not affect the structure of the branch. Sponem said it has been a cost-effective way to remind members of their dreams and inspire action.
“As a member-owned cooperative, we believe we have an obligation to try new things to support our members’ financial wellness,” Sponem said. “We know that visual reminders of goals and engaging environments support commitment and stimulate new thinking and action. The inspiration branch helps to build cooperative value for all our members as they envision and realize their dreams.”
Downs added that increasingly, credit unions are evaluating their branch networks in a more holistic way.
“When it comes to main operations facilities, credit unions are starting to look beyond the basic performance of the building itself, and are seeking measurement around the potential improvements in productivity, communication, employee satisfaction, employee recruitment and training,” Downs said.
Credit unions are starting to pay attention to the growing body of research on workplace design and its impact on an organization’s ability to perform at higher levels, Downs noted. This is translating to investment decisions that are more evidence-based, with specific focus on improvements to the quality of member service, employee satisfaction, and overall financial performance, he added. As a result, branches are no longer an all or nothing proposition.
“The branch is now one of several banking options and credit unions should consider how it supports all of its delivery channels and brand identity beyond that one specific location,” Downs said.
The emphasis is going away from a place to conduct routine transactions, which are moving to online and mobile channels, and more on places to provide a higher level of engagement with members.”
Downs said this higher level of engagement includes things as business services, investment services, and dispute resolution. While Apple and Starbucks are popular retail icons, in reality, those retail models fit the personality, culture and mission of very few credit unions, he suggested.
“Instead, we see credit unions incorporating certain pieces of the Apple of Starbucks experience into something that is more authentic their brand,” Downs said. “In the end, the biggest driver of branching in the future will be credit unions’ operating strategy.”
According to Downs, operations facilities have become centers of communication, training, and community outreach, and can also serve as an effective tool to recruit local talent into the credit union.