“Work Here, Bank Here”

By Marilyn Kennedy Melia

Whenever BankNewport prepares a customer mailing, it also goes out to all employees, according to Mary Leach, the bank’s executive vice president and director of consumer relationships.

“We share the communications with all employees, whether they are in customer-facing or administrative positions,” she said.

Snail mail and emails that land in the mailbox of every staffer of the $1.4 billion Rhode Island bank, keeps them abreast of all new offerings, but also—perhaps more importantly—nudges them to use the product themselves.

“They might think, ‘I could use that,’” Leach explained.

When employees become customers, banks gain much more than new account holders.

Any retailer or consumer-serving business “loves to have employees that use their products,” said Nancy Friedman, owner of customer service training firm, The Telephone Doctor. “When you go into the [women’s clothing] store, Chico’s, for instance, all the salespeople are wearing the clothes, and I’ve heard customers ask ‘Where did you get that?’ The salesperson says, ‘Right here!’”

But lately, banks have been quietly sharing their concerns with ABA that many of their employees choose to bank elsewhere. This reflects a cultural issue that needs attention. It also creates a major disconnect in the customer experience. What can be done about it?

To find out, we spoke with several banks that are doing a great job of making customers out of their employees. They told us how they:

  • Prompt staffers to become customers.
  • Use employee-customers as an in-house focus group.
  • Listen to staffers share their personal experience.
  • Ensure workers’ financial privacy.

Discounts and direct suggestions.

Many institutions offer employee discounts on bank products. Just visit the career page of any bank’s website, and you’re likely to see discounts or free checking listed as a benefit.

At Gate City Bank, which has 36 offices clustered in North Dakota and West Central Minnesota, many of the 600 employees have a personal loan or mortgage with the bank, because of the significant discounts, said Kim Meyer, executive vice president, director of retail banking and human resources. (If an employee leaves the bank, the fees/rate on the loan revert back to what outside customers pay.)

“And we are close to having nearly 100% of our employees with a checking account with us,” Meyer added.

In fact, checking is free for all—employees and outside customers—along with completely free ATM use, with Gate City reimbursing customers for fees incurred at ATMs out of network.

When they hire on, if employees don’t already have a checking relationship, they are expected to “take part in what’s our flagship product,” Meyer said.

It’s also possible to introduce more employees to products through a fun promotion aimed just at them.

Portland-based Umpqua Bank, with branches (called “stores”) in five western states, held a campaign last year that encouraged use of the bank’s mobile app among its 4,200 employees.

Eve Callahan, executive vice president for corporate communications and corporate responsibility described it. Using the app, employees were able to take photos of themselves and their co-workers, which were placed on the bank’s intranet system. The hook: to download the app, employees had to have a customer relationship with the bank, Callahan explained. “We gained hundreds of new customers among our employees,” she said.

Feedback and testers.

One of the great benefits of having staffers who are customers is that they can serve as a kind of in-house focus group.

The San Antonio-based Frost Bank has a good-size in-house marketing department. “So anytime we have direct-to-consumer communications, we can check with our own team to make sure that the Frost account holders among us received the communications correctly and on time,” said Bill Day, vice president, corporate communications.

“And if we want to make spot checks, we can ask for volunteers among employees to let us know if they are account holders, and if they have seen the communication when we would expect,” Day continues.

Moreover, when Frost Bank is planning a new offering, like a new use of its mobile app or a checking account feature, the bank asks for volunteers among staffers to test the concept for a couple of weeks before it’s rolled out to the public.

Show and tell.

Most parents at one time or another will rely on their teen or pre-teen to help them unravel the mysteries of their laptop or mobile device. In the same vein, bankers say that having front-line employees who use online and mobile services themselves are particularly suited for answering customer questions.

At BankNewport, “I would say that at least half of our employees use online [banking],” said Leach. She reports overhearing conversations between staff and customers, with the employees saying something like, “Let me show you how I just set up payment for my cable bill.”

Executives at Umpqua Bank were concerned about how the major information breach at Equifax last year could harm customers. They were also alarmed to learn stats showed that relatively few consumers nationwide had frozen their credit, in part because it’s a confusing process.

So, Umpqua held a dramatic promotion aimed at providing employees first-hand knowledge on how and when to place a freeze on their credit with the three major bureaus, while jointly promoting the concept with customers.

On a specially designated “freeze day,” Umpqua employees were encouraged to take a half- hour or so out of their regular duties to learn how to freeze their credit at special stations set up at the main office and stores.

On that same day, customers were also invited to the stations to set up their own credit freezes. Frozen ice cream treats were available nearby as an added enticement.

Now, customers who haven’t frozen their credit can learn the benefits and mechanics of doing so by staffers who’ve done it themselves, said Callahan.

Privacy and security.

When an employee uses a teller to withdraw funds from his savings account, or visits a personal banker for other services, it’s natural for him to wonder: “Will they know all about my finances?”

Worse, could an employee with access to the information “snoop” on co-workers’ finances?

Probably not, says Leach. “Most banks use software that identifies that it’s an employee account. For instance, if an employee has his pay auto-deposited, all the teller will see is his address and social security number, not the amount of pay deposited.”

Mike Homer, vice president of product management for bank solutions at Fiserv agrees. “The security can be set so that all an employee can see [on another employee’s account]is name and address information” he said. Systems might allow those in more senior positions, like a director or officer, to have greater access, he added.

What’s more, software can generate reports on employees that try to randomly access information on accounts.

Of course, when an employee seeks a loan, he must submit information on his credit, income, and other key financial details.

Here, security procedures can also be implemented to ensure some level of privacy. Umpqua, for instance, has a dedicated team of bankers who work with employees.

Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a banking and personal finance writer based in Chicago. Email: [email protected].