Branches Are Here to Stay, and They're Better Than Ever
I’m not the first to argue that technology has put the social skills of American consumers on life support.
Take a look around, and you’ll notice people spending their days hiding behind their mobile devices, using them to order toiletries and groceries, communicate with their friends and coworkers, line up a date for the weekend and book a hair appointment. All without speaking a word. Some of these individuals are not even visible to the public eye – thanks to the rise of e-commerce, any product or service can be delivered to one’s door. Why even leave the house?
When it comes to banking, cowering behind a mobile device is an acceptable option as well. Mobile banking apps, remote deposit capture, chatbots, text alerts and other forms of self-service functionality have lessened the need for human contact. And that means credit union branches are destined to suffer the same sad fate as old Blockbuster and Sears stores, right?
Those social skills may have a fighting chance after all, because the branch is alive and well, and it’s getting a major facelift. Gone are the days of the stale, sterile-looking branch with the Disneyland-like line leading up to a row of teller counters. Today’s branch is warm, welcoming, high-tech, interactive and helps foster a sense of community. And it’s time for more credit union members to change out of their sweats, come out of hiding, join other real, live people and take part in it.
Of course, no one should have to leave the house to deposit a check. Online and mobile banking were game-changing inventions that bought people valuable time. But for those bigger plans and decisions – buying a home, investing, saving for retirement – a Google search can’t replace an in-person meeting.
Speaking of community, since arriving in Portland, Ore., earlier this year, I’ve taken the time to meet and get to know a number of credit union people in the area, most recently Danette LaChapelle and Evan Strandburg, SVP of marketing/CCO and business development manager for IQ Credit Union. IQ is expanding its footprint from Washington State into Portland by opening a branch in the hip North Williams neighborhood to serve its growing number of members who live, work and do business on both sides of the Columbia River, which divides the two states. After meeting for coffee and donuts, they took me by the under-construction branch, and I asked them why their members value a physical location.
It turns out 60% of IQ members still conduct transactions in a branch, and their branch-goers are multigenerational, as boomers only make up a 2% to 4% larger chunk of the group compared to other generations, according to LaChapelle. Millennials are even coming in for basic transactions – she noted those who work part-time or freelance jobs, or don’t receive direct deposit, often come in to cash checks because they can’t afford to wait out a check hold period to use the funds. (This, of course, doesn’t give millennials points in the financial stability department, but it at least shows they’re not averse to face-to-face help.) She added while the number of in-branch transactions is not going down, membership is growing, meaning members are still coming in but not as much as they used to.
“The branch is important for the consultation and advice piece, and they tend to come in more around life events,” she said. “Some like to do all their research online and others want to talk about what’s best for them. But we find people continue to use all the channels.”
Branch visits often lead to pleasant surprises, too. “People come in and think they know what they want, or will talk about something without knowing that there’s a solution,” LaChapelle said. “By having staff who can ask questions and find out what’s going on in the member’s life, they can say, ‘Oh, we can fix that.’”
She described IQ’s newest branch, set to open in December, as smaller in size, designed to house “pods” as opposed to a big teller wall, friendly, easy to get around, consultative and community-focused. IQ’s efforts to connect with members face-to-face also spill outside the branch – its staff members have been meeting with local business owners and holding events like Budget & Brews in local brewpubs, where members can enjoy a free drink while discussing budgeting (where can I sign up?!)
“We’re bringing people into local businesses while promoting financial education,” LaChapelle explained.
Other credit unions are recognizing the value of the branch as well. For example, Nutmeg State Financial CU in Connecticut announced in July the opening of two new branches and many others in the works; its CEO, John Holt, commented in a news release, “While we promote the fact that our customers can do everything from their computer or mobile app 24/7, we still believe in the human element.”
And branch transformation is a hot topic industry-wide – in a recent news release announcing the Branch Transformation 2017 conference, scheduled for Nov. 28 and 29 in London, research and consulting firm RBR said financial institutions must think of branch transformation not as a one-off upgrade, but an ongoing, evolutionary process. It also described four trends that define the “branch of the future”:
Technology: New developments such as AI and cash recycling help relieve pain points for credit unions and allow them to focus on the member experience.
Format and design: Branches are becoming more fluid and incorporating social elements, such as coffee shops and community spaces, to allow members to connect on a human level.
Omnichannel integration: The branch channel is being integrated seamlessly with digital channels.
The role of staff: Branch staff members are focused more on consultation and sales, and less on simple transactions.
Why does your credit union believe in the value of the branch? What features or programs are you incorporating to make your branches more community-oriented and meet the modern member’s needs? Shoot me an email and share your feedback.
Natasha Chilingerian is managing editor for CU Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.