Evolution of the Universal Banker

By Jamie Eads

Over the last ten years, the discussion of implementing universal bankers into the retail branch has emerged as a dominant topic in the industry. The universal banker position saves personnel expenses by utilizing a cross-trained, highly efficient staff member who performs both sales and transactions. Fast forward to 2016, where almost every financial institution has at least started to incorporate the universal banker concept in one way or another. Across the industry, branch administrators have tweaked the staffing methodology to their own needs, as what works for one institution from a technical, procedural, and facility perspective may not work for every financial institution. That noted, the implementation of the universal banker position at most banks follows one of three variants:

Scenario 1: Cross-training

In this scenario, the institution has deemed the universal banker concept as warranting a test, perhaps because its competitors have already implemented the role. In response, the institution develops a job description and begins cross-training current staff members. Tellers learn the sales and service duties, and platform employees are trained to conduct transactions. These cross-trained universal bankers are now able to assist when excess demand on the teller or platform side dictates. However, the approach faces limits, as there are no changes to salary structures, to the branch facilities or technology, and no removal of any staff to improve efficiency and reduce personnel costs. This approach is usually pursued tentatively, with some cross-trained employees in each branch, along with a complement of single-function tellers and customer-service representatives.

Scenario 2: A full universal banker staff (but nothing else)

The institution running this scenario has progressed beyond the cross-training scenario and is transitioning its staff to universal bankers in most of its branches. However, the budget does not allow the institution to invest the necessary capital for the physical and technological changes required within the branch to fully leverage the benefits of the universal banker role. So, with traditional lobby sales desks and a teller line still in its original format, branch administration creates a schedule where the universal bankers swap days working the teller line or the sales desk. One week a universal banker works Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on the teller line and Tuesday and Thursday on the sales desk. And then the following week, the schedule alternates.

This scenario includes a distinct universal job description and pay grade and affords each staff member sales opportunities, while regular job rotation reinforces the cross-training investments. However, the scenario falls short of the full concept of “any staff member can help any customer with any need.” The intermediate approach may include a few technologies, such as teller cash recyclers or image enable depository ATMs, to help eliminate simple transactions; but there are still some missing pieces. Many branches under this scenario will continue to maintain traditional layers of management and operational supervision as well.

Scenario 3: The Complete Universal Banker Model

A full universal banker branch usually houses a manager and three to four universal bankers, depending on the size of the branch and its hours of operation. The branch has been configured to feature an open, free-flowing lobby with one or two offices, a conference room, two or three freestanding teller stations, and several sales desks with some level of privacy. Technological features typically include teller cash recyclers, several multifunctional ATMs and video-teller capabilities. However, the driver of success for the model is the floor plan that eliminates barriers between the teller and platform sides of the branch. This physical reconfiguration is what facilitates full leveraging of the benefits of the universal banker role—the ability to seamlessly migrate from teller to platform functions as customer arrival patterns dictate. In addition, with fewer total staff in the branch and less required cash handling, span-of-control issues recede, allowing all employees to report directly to the branch manager.

Although institutions should strive for the fully realized version of the model described in scenario 3, keep in mind that the universal banker model is not universally appropriate. While beneficial in branches where transaction demand has eroded to the point that customer-facing activities no longer consume the majority of a teller’s time, in branches where transaction volumes remain robust, a traditional teller/CSR divide will prove more efficient. If transaction demand still consumes the majority of a teller’s time, then converting that role to a higher paid universal banker simply raises salary costs, as that employee would spend limited time in non-transaction functions anyway. But with high-transaction branches becoming less common, the universal banker model enjoys broad applicability in the industry and warrants consider in its broadest format.

Jamie Eads is senior project manager for Bancography, a Birmingham, Ala. based firm that provides consulting services, software tools and marketing research to financial institutions.