Banks go back to basics to fulfill customer experience

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 8:04 p.m.

A bank branch traditionally has been a place with tellers. Nowadays, it is often a place with listeners.

A number of banks in Western Pennsylvania are placing staff in branches to hear about and service customers' investment, retirement and other needs, instead of just processing checks and taking deposits.

“Our philosophy is total money management,” said Vincent Delie Jr., CEO of First National Bank and president of its parent, FNB Corp. of Hermitage, Mercer County

“Our goal when a customer walks into a branch is to provide what they need to be (financially) successful,” said Delie. “That requires people in the branches to have more training and to be more focused on cross-selling.”

In an age when customers are using technology to do more of their day-to-day transactions, banks are employing new ways to serve them with other services inside traditional branches.

Retail bank branches are evolving more toward places for customers to “resolve issues or look for financial advice,” said David Albertazzi, senior analyst at Aite Group, a financial services research and advisory firm based in Boston.

“Branches are becoming more about customer experience rather than about transactions,” he said.

For example, a First National Bank branch employee might suggest to someone nearing retirement that they roll over a 401(k) account, said Delie. Or a newcomer to Pittsburgh who's opening a checking account might be offered a credit card or homeowners insurance.

A few First National Bank branches, such as in Shadyside and Sewickley, feature airy, enclosed areas for customers to discuss their personal finances with staff members in a private setting, said Delie.

At Citizens Bank, customers walking into a branch are likely to be intercepted by a “greeter” who asks why they are visiting and what other financial issues their households have. If the customer is waiting in line just to deposit a personal check, for instance, he might be directed to a “smart” automated teller machine on site that can handle the transaction and which has no waiting line.

“We started testing greeters about a year ago in the Pittsburgh market. Now, we have it around the country,” said Michael Cleary, group executive vice president and head of U.S. distribution for consumer banking at RBS Citizens Financial Group, parent of Citizens Bank.

The bank has begun adding “financial consultants” — generally one for every two or three branches — to advise customers about such issues as saving for college or planning for retirement, he said.

“Years ago, when online banking came along, people used to say branches would go away once consumers adopted this channel,” said Cleary. “But what we've learned is that people use all channels — ATMs, online banking, telephone banking, mobile banking — and branches,” said Cleary.

A study by the Tower Group shows the cost difference to process transactions through different channels. A transaction at a teller window is the most expensive, costing banks $4 on average to process. A telephone transaction — where a call center agent talks to a customer — costs an average of $3.75. ATM transactions cost 85 cents, and online service costs only 17 cents per transaction, the study shows

PNC Bank is converting a traditional branch in the South Hills into what it calls an “investment and retirement planning center.” The office on Beverly Road in Mt. Lebanon will be the first of its kind in PNC's retail network when it opens sometime in late March, said Jim Balouris, executive vice president of retail banking.

“We'll be redoing the entire branch,“ said Balouris. “The objective is to have good conversations with customers sitting side by side with our experts to come up with game plans to achieve their financial goals.”

The PNC prototype will differ from a PNC wealth management office, which serves people with at least $1 million to invest. Rather, an investment and retirement planning center will cater to what Balouris calls, “the mass affluent,” or people with between $100,000 and $1 million to invest.

“Customers are searching for solutions in this low-interest investing environment,” he said.

PNC is taking a “test-and-learn” approach before rolling out the concept, said Balouris.

Area banks also continue broadening their branch capabilities with technology. Executives at both PNC and at Citizens said their respective banks by the end of 2013 would have in place advanced-function, or smart, ATMs. The machines can accept cash and check deposits without envelopes, and provide check images on receipts.

“Whatever people's economic level is, they are using technology to do more of their day-to-day transactions,” said Balouris.

Thomas Olson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or at

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