Make a Branch Visit a Brand Experience

By Raja Bose

Delivering better experiences, not products, will win your organization long-term success. Take these experience-driven marketing lessons back to your own network, and start re-envisioning your branch as an integral part of your brand strategy.

What’s the purpose of your branch?

For most financial institutions today, despite declining foot traffic and growing digital adoption, the branch remains the most lucrative channel for product sales. It’s estimated that between 60-80% of all new accounts are opened in a branch. But I’ll bet a significant percentage of your branches are still designed primarily to offer a purely transactional experience.

Your customers expect more – and your branches can do more. Amid the proliferation of physical and digital channels, the branch is no longer the only place to ‘bank’. However, its impact as a visible and tangible expression of your bank’s brand is undeniable. To maximize this opportunity, the experiences your branch and staff provide must align with the impression your brand is trying to create. Each interaction should be consistent, brand-driven and personal.

Which makes it a challenging time to be a retail banking marketer: You’re trying to reach a fickle, rapidly evolving customer base with more information and power than ever before, and you’re doing it in an era when customers are as digitally driven as they are experience driven. So how can you negotiate that tricky balance in your branch network?

The trends we’re seeing now in the financial industry are trickling down from retail, hospitality, and even some financial institutions you might not expect. Consider how you can employ their tactics in the service of your own strategic goals, and start to evolve customer interactions from transactional visits to immersive brand experiences.

Lesson #1: Customers are open to technology – when it comes with a human touch.

Like most banks, you probably don’t have the resources to upgrade your branch network – or even a single branch – with all the latest technological bells and whistles. But that’s OK. I doubt that’s really what your customers want. Instead, put yourself in their shoes, and think about how you use technology in your own life. Our smartphones, tablets, fitness trackers, etc. are really just tools we use to complement our physical experiences.

Companies that really “get” this approach have started integrating digital experiences into their stores in really intriguing ways. When you walk into a Bonobos Guide Shop or Samsung 837 (a so-called “un-store), you won’t find any inventory. Instead, you’re immersed in the brand. At Bonobos, that means working with a personal stylist to find the perfect chinos or blazer. Visitors to Samsung 837 get to play with the latest tech gadgets, ask questions and explore.

Once they’re ready to purchase, customers work with a staffer to place their order online – while they’re in the store. Given the virtual nature of banking products (You can’t really pick up an try on a checking account), banks are primed to deliver this tailored, experiential form of service to customers, and your staffers should have the capability to weave digital touchpoints into their interactions with a branch visitor.

Action Item: Consider investing in tablets or interactive digital displays that your branch staff can use as interactive tools to showcase your bank’s capabilities, products and digital solutions. Focus on your customers’ goals and aspirations rather than the products you want to sell.


Lesson #2: You’re marketing a store, not a branch.

Umpqua Bank is well known for its retail-like branch design and experience, and in fact they refer to their branches as stores. Many locations even feature local vendors’ products in the lobby. Maybe that’s a little extreme for your bank. But consider China’s oldest local bank (not exactly what comes to mind when you think about an innovative organization), OCBC. The company created FRANK in Singapore, a brand aimed at appealing to a very specific (and attractive) customer segment – Millennials.

One of the marquee offerings is a lineup of more than 100 card designs customers can choose from. Your bank may offer personalized images for debit cards – but do you have them arrayed attractively on a large wall in your branch? Bank products don’t always lend themselves to retail-like product displays, yet FRANK found a way to showcase a product in an enticing, unexpected way.

That credit card display is a new touchpoint for the bank – it’s driving engagement, interaction and ultimately, sales. How is your branch enabling customers to self-explore and learn about new products in a low-pressure environment?

Action Item: Choose one product you sell that you could market differently in-branch, whether it’s through a visually appealing installation or a technology-based application.


Lesson #3: Bank employees are brand ambassadors.

In an interview with Conde Nast Traveler, one of the world’s top hotel concierges, Frank Laino, explains his secrets to success: “An ability to listen and have empathy with the guests. Guests often do not know what they want…Be a rounded, balanced person – never stop learning. Have the ability to engage clients in an intelligent and informed conversation…”

You may have a handful of employees throughout your branch network with the title of “concierge.” Do they fit Laino’s description? Or, are they simply directing customers where to go to get served? A concierge approach to retail banking means putting customers – and their needs – ahead of products and sales; and advising them to right solution for them.

Your frontline staffers have to be so much more than tellers. They’re salespeople, customer-service reps, relationship builders and educators. As an industry, we’re embracing the notion of a universal banker, but I think that gets us only part of the way. Even if you’ve empowered your employees with more responsibilities and capabilities, if they’re not excited about your brand, how are they going to get customers excited? If they don’t know (or truly believe) how your bank sets itself apart from others, how are they going to help customers understand what’s different about your brand? Increasingly, I’m seeing some banks and credit unions adopt standard uniforms for their branch staff. Not only does it ensure a more cohesive brand image to customers, but it also fosters greater teamwork and commitment from employees. Do it right, and the uniform can even become an iconic piece of your brand. Apple even made the news when they changed the color of their t-shirts for store employees.

Your employees are the curators of the brand experience. So in the quest for optimal customer service experiences, understand that it’s OK to get “in the weeds.” The more tactical and specific your approach, and the more it’s documented for your employees, the easier it will be to drive consistency. The more progressive financial institutions are building employee playbooks and literally role playing situations with staffers. It not only helps them empathize more closely with customer frustrations, it provides them with the confidence to make good decisions in real time.

Action Item: If you don’t have the funds to send your employees to a conference or provide continuing education, consider putting together local employee events that focus on teambuilding and branding. Think hard about your organization’s mission statement, and develop a group activity that brings it to life.


Lesson #4: Rethink your role in the community.

Not everyone needs – or is the right target audience for – dedicated wealth management; but humans of every stripe do have financial questions from time to time. MassMutual (again, hardly what one might consider a nimble fintech startup) recognized the gap and collaborated with an economist and a design firm to launch the Society of Grownups. Their down-to-earth approach to finance targets millennials and young professionals with a blog, classes and networking events that address topics like “The Struggle is Real: Job Hunting,” “Couples & Money,” “Loans & Groans” and “You’re a Grownup (Don’t Panic).” From the cheeky titles to the post-work class schedules, expert speakers and wine-infused atmosphere, these are not your typical seminars.

There are many ways to provide different levels of personalized services to audiences outside the typical wealth-management segment (like an after-hours financial planner available once a week) – and many partnerships in your own community that you could mine for both expertise and new customers (have you considered your local high school or college?).

Action Item: Take this one right to your staff. Ask them for ways they think your brand is missing out on a segment of customers. You might be surprised at the feedback.


Lesson #5: You’re marketing a relationship, not a product.

The bottom line is that products come and go, but solid relationships last for decades – through major life events including new cars, new marriages, new homes and new babies. Today’s customers are increasingly ready to switch banks if they don’t feel like their bank ‘has their back’, and the best way to keep them around is by treating your interactions with them like relationships, not transactions.

Do you regularly ask for their input? Whether formal or not, just the act of asking what they think can make customers feel more connected to your brand. Of course, you could take it as far as Target did recently, when they booted two kid’s clothing brands and invited kids themselves to come in and help design a new line. It’s important to note that those original brands weren’t doing poorly – but Target thought they could do better if they listened to their customers. Why? “If you only put hearts and flowers in an assortment for girls and it sells, you think that’s all they want,” explained their head of product design and development.

Action Item: Consider a new avenue for engaging with your customers – not only by finding ways to connect in their lives, but by bringing their voice into your own marketing and development initiatives.


Retail banking shares so many similarities with retail commerce in general, not least of which is the migration from physical to digital channels. I was fascinated by a Q&A I read recently with a VP of a digital signage company. “Retailers have to make a ‘gift’ of the retail visit,” he said. “With almost every single physical retail channel losing trips year-over-year, a trip really is a gift to the retailer.”

When you identify your employees as brand ambassadors and trusted financial advisors who are empowered to provide guidance and make decisions, you begin to refocus the entire branch experience. Rather than conduct a rote transaction, or push customers to buy a checking account, your marketing efforts can address customers’ needs and desires in entirely new ways, all the while underpinning the true value of your bank branch.

You aren’t there just to offer a safe place for your customers’ money – you’re there to be their lifestyle enabler: to help them achieve their goals and aspirations, no matter how small or large. How are you putting customers at the heart of every solution and every strategic initiative? The “people strategy” needs to come first. Let that inform the decisions you make for your branch network, whether it’s a technology update, process change or a new marketing campaign.

Raja Bose is vice president of global advisory services at Diebold Nixdorf, a financial self-service, security, and services company. Email: [email protected]