Amid declining foot traffic, Rochester-area banks and credit unions are following different paths to draw customers to their brick-and-mortar branches. Some have revamped branch design and décor, while others have redoubled efforts to showcase ties to the community.
Banks and credit unions cannot afford to take boosting in-person interactions with customers lightly. Despite consumers’ voracious appetites for online and mobile services, face-to-face encounters still plant the seeds for securing long-term relationships and brand loyalty.
“Traffic in branches isn’t like it used to be even 10 years ago” due to conveniences such as mobile check deposit, says James Bilotta, manager of the Perinton Park branch of the Lyons National Bank, whose parent company is Lyons Bancorp Inc. But having employees whom customers recognize as their neighbors or community volunteers helps keep the branch busy, he adds.
Even some millennials—widely regarded as the most elusive branch customers—are crossing the threshold to discuss home mortgages, Bilotta says.
Mobile apps aside, branch banking is still an essential part of customer service, says John Witkowski, president and CEO of the Albany-based Independent Bankers Association of New York State Inc. Customers of all stripes can research banks online easily, “but the one thing they always want is somebody who is knowledgeable and somebody they can talk to, especially when it comes to your money,” he says.
Recent research supports Witkowski’s point.
According to the 2016 Global Consumer Banking Survey by EY, formerly Ernst & Young, 82 percent of consumers go online first when interested in buying a new product or service from a bank, but nearly 60 percent want to visit a branch or call a real person to make the purchase or get advice. In addition, 44 percent maintain they would not trust a branchless bank.
“It’s got to be a combination of people, technology and having a little innovation” to keep branches on top of customers’ expectations, Witkowski says.
Having less face time with customers has prompted Tompkins Bank of Castile, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ithaca-based Tompkins Financial Corp., to make adjustments on various fronts. When it comes to branch footprints, “we don’t need as much space because there aren’t as many customers to serve because so much of that transactional volume happens elsewhere,” says John
McKenna, president and CEO at Tompkins Bank of Castile.
As part of the redesign for one of its Monroe County branches, Tompkins will shift away from teller lines so that customers can “approach a customer-service person to do all kinds of things, including traditional transactions, but also to have a consultative conversation, to apply for a loan,” McKenna says.
He adds: “That is much more of what we’re doing today in the branches for our customers – is having what I’ll call ‘consultative conversations’ with someone thinking about buying a home or actually intending to; someone is thinking about retiring and preparing and needs advice; someone has bought a new car and needs to think about insurance. So, the space is designed to accommodate those kinds of conversations.”
Though the branches are smaller, their layout has become more open, McKenna says. Partial walls, glass and white noise help ensure customers’ privacy, he adds.
“In addition to the layout, the staffing of the branches is very different than it would have been years ago in two ways,” McKenna says. The employee ranks are smaller, but they have deeper skills due to cross-training.
“If you walked in today and wanted to make a loan payment, the person that you’re talking to can help you with that,” McKenna says. “But if you want to have a conversation about how to save for a home, how to qualify for a residential mortgage, or many other things, you can also have that conversation with this person.”
The costs that financial institutions incur when offering professional-development opportunities pale in comparison to the expense of keeping employees siloed, recent research shows.
According to Financial Management Solutions Inc., a Georgia-based technology-solutions provider and subsidiary of Kronos Inc., monthly volumes of teller transactions at community banks and credit unions nationwide plummeted 45 percent from 1992 to 2015, while per-transaction labor costs soared 133 percent. Squeezing those institutions even further were tellers’ salaries and benefits, which climbed 90 percent during that period.
For some banks, attracting more foot traffic has involved community outreach. The Lyons National Bank’s Perinton Park branch has done so by making its community room—a boardroom-style space that seats 14—available to nonprofit groups free of charge.
“That’s been a big hit” and generated business for the bank, Bilotta says.
To spotlight its connections to the community, Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union began in 2005 to host exhibits of artwork members have created. The exhibits kick off with an opening night at the credit union’s South Wedge headquarters and then change roughly every three months.
“We have a huge array of talent in our membership,” says Alicia Ainsworth, collections officer at Genesee Co-op FCU and curator of the exhibits, which have ranged from paintings to marquetry over the years.
Another example of the credit union’s interest in promoting its artist-members involves its debit cards, which feature an image by Don and Cheryl Olney, a South Wedge-based husband-and-wife team who create sculpture, jewelry and notecards out of wood.
In another point of differentiation, all Genesee Co-op FCU employees except the student intern are certified financial counselors.
“We definitely guide customers in a way that is not possible with bigger banks,” Ainsworth says. Word of that high-touch approach gets around, so “we have a lot of referrals of members’ family and friends or co-workers,” she adds.
At Spencerport Federal Credit Union, charitable activities help bring customers to the branch, says manager Nancy Bodhorn. During the Christmas season, customers have a chance to select an angel from the branch’s toy tree and return at a later date with a present for a needy child. The branch also collects nonperishable food from early November to early December.
“We still give a gift when people come in to become a member,” Bodhorn adds, “like the old days.”
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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