Branching Out  

By Deb Stewart

Not that long ago, conversations about bank branches focused on the pieces—technology, space, people. Today in retail banking, those elements are coming together in unique ways. Here are three banks with common goals in these areas and very different solutions that meet their brand and customers.

‘A sense of empathy’

“Our in-store and financial center design begins with a sense of empathy and human connection,” says Joel Kashuba, director of innovation and design at Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank. “The idea of acknowledging and removing the fear of judgement when you’re very vulnerable—meet customers where they are and provide the level of support they need to be the best version of themselves.”

Fifth Third’s branches offer quieter booth spots for private conversations and meetings. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Third)

The result? Whether you are in a supermarket or a free-standing branch or whether the branch is 500 square feet or on 3,000-square-foot site, a sense of openness and approachability.

Interactive teller machines are positioned on the face of in-store branches or in drive-up lanes of freestanding sites, providing transactional support with extended hours. Customers enter into what Kashuba calls the “growth zone.” High tables provide a space for customers to start a conversation or do a service transaction, while booths provide a greater level of privacy in a comfortable, easy environment.

Each space also offers enclosed meeting rooms. These levels provide customers with choice. A library space puts resources at the fingertips of customers and staff, and media and advertising blends digital and print with a focus on the former.

A Fifth Third supermarket branch with a “growth zone.” (Photo courtesy of Fifth Third)

“The kit of parts for each zone supports a wide range of needs. We can accommodate virtually any branch size,” says Kashuba. “We can create a basic consistency of experience that is still responsive to the market we are serving. The ultimate test for the experience definition and the kit of parts saw our community development group using the same pieces and zoning in pop-up sites in community centers!”

The idea of community shows up in many other ways. Staff and communications reflect the community. In some sites, small business owners are encouraged to use the booth or private office space to meet with their clients. Growth zones may be opened up to financial seminars. Displays of local merchandise may be considered at some point. These sites and staff choreography will evolve as tests and learning occur.

An important consideration in design development was how the branch relates to other customer channels and supports the brand. “For me, omnichannel enables customers to engage in the way most appropriate to them,” explains Kashuba. “It’s important that the tone of voice and principals behind decisions be consistent across touch points. Design attributes sync across channels—colors inside the branch should relate to the mobile app but pumped up in mobile because of scale and how it’s used. We’re constantly thinking about look, tone and feel.”


From data to discernment

Regions Bank, based in Birmingham, Ala., began redesigning its branches several years ago and continues to update and refresh them alongside Regions’ overall brand. The new look is bright, colorful and open, with warm wood tones and visibility throughout the space. “We own our color, our imagery is associated with spring growth and opportunity, even our iconic bike image—a comfortable, familiar cruiser—are all intentionally chosen to build the brand regardless of channel,” says Shawn Bradley, EVP for distribution planning at Regions.

Regions customizes in local markets by providing different functionality and sizes to meet each community’s needs. Branches range in size from 800 to 10,000 square feet, with most in the 1,800 to 2,700 square foot range. Staff choreography is defined specifically for each branch with pre-scripted handoffs reinforcing the ease of the brand. An initiative called Regions 360 ensures alignment and coordination between functions—wealth, treasury, mortgage and others. The next step in connecting with customers was to enhance the staffing structure and tools available to staff. “A year ago, we went to one job family within our branch network,” explains Bradley. “Everyone is a banker. There is clear career pathing, with specializations an available option, so branch staff can continue to grow within the channel—a huge benefit for associates.”

Regions’ redesign shows off its bold green brand color. (Photo courtesy of Regions)

To help employees capitalize on their own growth and deliver more relevant service, Regions introduced “Rosie,” an artificial intelligence engine that can tap 350 data points in real time. “It identifies relevant clues like a child who may be going to college, or an interest in purchasing a home and suggests a next best action for that client,” says Bradley. “Half of Rosie’s recommendations have nothing to do with sales—for example, a customer’s rewards points may be expiring.” With Rosie’s initial input, the associate can gather more information from the customer and make a specific product recommendation.

These tools enable relevant conversations and ensure a more consistent outcome for customers, regardless of branch location and beyond. They are used across channels, providing a similar experience and functionality regardless of channel choice. Interoperability of systems allows customers to move back and forth between channels—for example, starting an application online and working with a branch associate to finish it.

“We have a laser focus on the customer experience regardless of channel,” Bradley says. “People are the key to this success and leveraging analytics is enabling those people to service customers even better.”

Customer facing

VeraBank has had a busy few years, going through a rebrand from Citizens National Bank, doubling its number of branches from 20 to 37 and transforming the branch experience. “For us, branch transformation came first—starting five years ago,” explains President and CEO Brad Tidwell. “We are a traditional, independent community  bank. But we were seeing dramatic changes in our customers’ expectations and interactions.” The upshot: VeraBank invested in the digital channels its customers wanted and decided to transform its branches to recast them for a lower-traffic, more relationship-driven environment.

VeraBank redesigned its lobbies to facilitate universal bankers’ choreography.

In partnership with Adrenaline, an experience design agency, VeraBank’s physical transformation included more open space but retained spaces with some levels of privacy, as well as a rethink of the teller line to allow easy access for universal bankers. VeraBank encourages community members and customers to use its conference rooms. To facilitate the universal banker choreography, the spaces have cash recyclers, and VeraBank replaced ATMs with interactive teller machines.

“The shift to ITMs in the drive-up lanes may seem minor,” says Adrenaline President and CEO Sean Keathley. “But that change enables all of your branch staff to focus on the customers walking through the door. There is no need to have your back turned. The impression left by this change is attentiveness, a real interest in serving me—the customer—and building our relationship.”

The move to universal bankers had a major effect on VeraBank, requiring an entirely new training protocol—and, most significantly, a cultural shift on the part of branch associates and the bank as a whole. “We knew that just remodeling the branches wouldn’t get us where we needed to go,” Tidwell explains. “We needed to initiate a cultural evolution away from our traditional operations and platforms and tellers.”

Continued learning—and change

Common threads among these transformations include brand, community and connection. “There is an expectation that the brand experience will be consistent and seamless across all channels. That consistency needs to include both the aesthetic and the operational experience,” explains Keathley. “We have to make sure it looks like the same organization whether customers are in a mobile app or in the branch.”

But that brand experience has to be tailored and flexible enough to meet local needs. “When you think about responding to the unique needs of a community with design or communications or staffing, consider the potential evolution of that community,” says Aaron Birney, principal and design director at Gensler. “Ask: What is your relevance to the community at large? Is it money exchange in a community with a growing international population? Does the neighborhood need another coffee shop or community space? Is it moving toward a particular architectural style? Understanding the long-term needs of the community is the only way for a bank to see its full potential.”

Ultimately, brand and community come together in the principal job of a branch: connection. “You can connect with customers on a transactional basis through technology,” adds Birney. “But technology doesn’t do a great job connecting emotionally. Branch experiences are what create that emotional connection. The role of the employee in the branch is becoming even more important.”

Deb Stewart is a contributing editor at ABA Bank Marketing.