How to Train a Swiss Army Banker

By Walt Albro

When your bank decides to implement a universal banker approach, employees have to believe in its benefits—both for themselves and for their customers. Otherwise, the bank runs the risk of not reaping the full value from the universal banker concept.

That’s the experience of David L. Oliver, SVP of retail banking at Windsor Federal Savings, a $400 million thrift in Windsor, Conn. Windsor Federal is about three-quarters of the way through the process of implementing universal bankers, a system that the bank calls “personal banking.” The institution has six regular branches as well as four limited-service branches in high schools and residential communities for seniors.

More than two years ago, before Oliver started at the bank, Windsor Federal decided that it needed to begin introducing the universal banker concept to its staff—a process in which bank personnel would have the skills and flexibility to act both as tellers and platform customer service representatives. Why? Millennials seeking career growth and opportunity were rapidly entering the workforce and branch lobby traffic was on the decline. With more customers opting for online banking, mobile banking or ATMs to perform basic transactions, bank management noticed that the majority of its in-branch traffic tended to be customers with service-oriented needs, such as loan applications.

Additionally, the bank realized that employees who had a greater depth of skills would allow for greater staffing flexibility. The combination of the two would provide the bank with more highly trained personnel to establish multiple relationships with its customers, thereby contributing to the bank’s growth.

The bank began to recruit personnel with universal banker skills. But skills alone were not sufficient to successfully implement the concept, says Oliver, who discussed the transition at the ABA Marketing and Retail Conference in Denver in October. When he came on board, he quickly learned that both tellers and customer service representatives continued to spend the majority of their time engaging in the more traditional retail banking job functions. “They were not going back-and-forth from one job to the other,” Oliver says. “As a result, we were not achieving any sales growth.”

Oliver searched for a training program to help the bank achieve its goal of successfully implementing the universal banker concept. He selected ABA’s universal banking online training, which leads to an ABA Universal Banker Certificate. To help employees enjoy, retain and employ what they were learning, Windsor Federal developed an elaborate program that combined education with accountability.

He supplemented the training with a series of extracurricular individual research projects and group branch presentations, complete with rewards in the form of points and prizes. This was done to ensure that all staff had a good understanding of the course contents prior to continuing with the next course. Overall, it made the training valuable, fun and exciting for all, Oliver says.

From managers to tellers, everyone involved in retail banking at Windsor Federal—a total of 36 people—is participating in the training, which consists of one course a month for 11 months.

Personnel are divided into teams by branch, and the teams compete with each other for points in a contest similar to The Amazing Race on television. Points are awarded for notable accomplishments, such as the first team to complete the month’s course, the highest-scoring employee and the most-improved branch score.

Tips for Implementing the Universal Banker Model

  • Put all retail-side employees through the training. This exposes all employees to the same universal banker experience. “We want them all singing from the same hymnal,” Oliver says.
  • Make it fun. Integrate games and friendly competition into the learning activities.
  • Don’t rush it. Space out the training over a long period of time, giving each employee the opportunity to learn and digest the learning materials at his or her individual pace.
  • Learn by shadowing. Ensure that tellers and customer-service people job shadow each other and try out the opposite job role in the early stages of training. Insist that everyone in retail spend at least 60 percent of their time either in the lobby or on the line. Assign an office to only one person: the branch manager.
  • Be patient. Change can be difficult, especially for employees who have been doing the same job for 25 years.
  • Understand how your people work. If employees are having a problem, spend the extra time to work with them. Give them the time and resources they deserve: You’ll get more success that way.

After each online course is completed by all of the staff in a particular branch, the students receive a new “challenge” in the form of an assignment, such as writing an essay about a topic relevant to the course just completed, preparing presentations or organizing a project. For example, after completing the relationship sales course, students had to engage in role-playing exercises in which they attempted to sell each other various bank products and services. All the courses are scheduled to be completed in early 2016.

What is in store at the end of the 11-month journey? Windsor Federal is confident that it will have a well-rounded, engaged and skilled retailing staff that will be ready to establish long-term, meaningful, in-depth relationships with their customers, Oliver says. An award banquet may be on the horizon to properly recognize all of their outstanding efforts and achievements.

Even though students have not yet completed the training, benefits are already visible. “Cross-selling is above expectations,” Oliver says. The number of new checking accounts is up, as are the balances of checking accounts. The bank saw a $22 million increase in core deposits over the previous 12 months. “In the past, we were very much order-takers,” Oliver explains. Today, bank personnel are engaging in conversations with their customers. “Before, when someone asked to open a checking account, we would talk about features and pricing. Now, we start a conversation by asking them how they plan to use their checking account, what they liked or didn’t like about their previous checking account at another bank, etc.”

Although Oliver anticipated that some employees would be uncomfortable with this perceived change in the way of doing things, he was confident that it would be a great way for employees to expand their knowledge and develop their careers. And, he says now, he was right. The majority of his employees, both new and those with longevity, were eager to develop themselves professionally by learning new skills. “We have not had a single employee leave the bank because of the universal banker training,” he notes.

One added benefit of universal banking is fewer staffing problems. “When we have vacancies in a branch, whether from illness or something else, anyone can fill in,” Oliver says. “People can move easily from branch to branch. Staffing is far less complicated than it used to be.”

Walt Albro recently retired as content editor for ABA Bank Marketing.