Banks find golden recruiting talent in retail

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

Eric Scott Brown's future in banking began with selling a pair of earmuffs.

The 26-year-old Mt. Washington resident was working in menswear at Macy's when Dan Taylor, a senior vice president at PNC Bank, walked in and said he needed to protect his ears from the chill outside.

Brown sold him not only earmuffs but also the matching gloves. Taylor returned the next day, extended his card to Brown and told him to give him a call. Brown had no banking experience, but Taylor said it didn't matter. Within a few months, Brown was hired as a customer service associate for PNC.

“What I saw was a person who had enthusiasm, energy and a personality,” Taylor said. “He was going to be so customer-driven in how he helped me.”

As banks adapt their branch business model to the digital age and compete for new customers, some are looking outside of the finance industry for talent. PNC has looked everywhere from Apple stores to big-box retailers as it searches for engaging personalities who can balance the drive for automation in banking with a human touch.

“As we think of recruiting talent differently, those are places that we go,” said Todd Barnhart, executive vice president and head of branch banking at PNC. “If you think about lots of demonstration, very tech-centered, which a lot of banking is today. People who are on their feet, able to engage a customer, talk to the customer, cross-sell with that customer.”

The shift to online and mobile banking has led to less of a need for traditional branch tellers to take deposits and cash checks.

Three decades ago, 95 percent of households used a bank branch, according to a recent Morningstar report. Today that is down to 50 percent, and analysts expect that to fall to 33 percent by 2020 as more consumers use their smartphones, tablets and laptops to do their banking.

As a result, banks such as PNC and Wells Fargo are transforming their branch networks. PNC closed 186 branches last year and 22 in the first three months of this year, and is converting other locations to a tech-savvy model, with open floor layouts in which customers handle most of their transactions on super-charged ATMs. They will still be staffed, but the teller role is migrating toward one that is more sales-focused, someone who can answer questions, develop relationships and establish “a deeper share of wallet,” Barnhart said.

“People go to a branch to discover who you are and what they can get from you,” he said. “What we think people will value from a branch is that advice, which may be delivered one-on-one in a customer interaction.”

Banks have hired people outside of the financial industry for years, but there has been a greater emphasis recently on finding people who have experience in interacting with customers and building a relationship, said Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the Consumer Bankers Association.

They are looking for any edge in an intensely competitive environment, when new regulation and low interest rates are forcing retail banks to fight for customers.

“Customer service has never been more important in the banking industry,” said Jim Baum, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, another institution that is looking outside the financial industry for branch employees. “It's incredibly competitive.”

Not every bank is recruiting from retailers, as local demographics and institutional philosophy determine how banks staff branches, said Bhushan Sethi, who studies trends in the financial services industry for the tax and advisory firm network PwC.

However, retail does offer a pool of talent for those institutions moving to a particular branch model, especially in metropolitan areas, where customers seek a more tech-focused and “multi-channel” experience.

“Those banks that have changed their branches and their branch layout and have invested more heavily in digitization and digital technology — whether the tellers or the financial advisers with iPads — and actually service you right there with an iPad or a mobile device,” he said. “It's all about enhancing the client experience so very similar to visiting an Apple store.”

The retail banks that thrive in the next five to 10 years must develop a customer-centric business model, according to a recent PwC report on the future of retail banking. Part of that involves attracting a new type of talent, the report said, “people who are obsessed with the customer.”

Brown says he fits that mold.

“I always try to give 110 percent,” Brown said recently at the branch where he works on Market Square. “It's the same if I was selling a Ferrari or a $5 pair of gloves.”

Brown had no previous finance experience. His only impression of the industry was Wall Street. But he had the personal skills and attributes that would allow him to engage a customer and close a sale, Taylor said.

“We can teach them everything,” Taylor said. “But it's pretty hard to teach someone how to smile.”

Brown was promoted two months ago to a financial services consultant. His job depends heavily on communication skills. He greets customers, helps them handle transactions, describes products and refers them to licensed bankers if they are looking for something more sophisticated, such as investment advice or a mortgage.

Brown said his retail experience translated quickly to banking.

“From working in retail, I was having in-depth customer conversations,” he said.

As banks evolve and customers handle more of their transactions themselves, either online or at an ATM, employees like Brown are the way that banks distinguish themselves and cultivate new business.

There is a lot that technology offers in cutting costs and reaching customers. But there's one thing it can't do.

“Personalize the conversation,” Taylor said. “Because customers buy from people; they don't buy from institutions.”

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

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Do you want to help us improve our commenting platform?
Click here to take this a survey.

Show commenting policy