Bankers Who Can, Teach

Marilyn Kennedy Melia

It takes a lot to separate people from their screens these days.

But for some, money management questions will drive them to seek answers in the physical world—preferably from their bank.

The newly released J.D. Power 2020 Retail Banking Advice Satisfaction Study finds that 83 percent of consumers say they are either very interested or somewhat interested in receiving financial advice from their primary bank, says Paul McAdam, senior director at J.D. Power. Of that group, 49 percent say they would like to receive that advice in person at a bank branch or office.

An old-school idea—classroom instruction—provides a quick route to establishing a reputation as the place for financial guidance.

It’s an education in itself, though, to learn what makes for successful offerings. Here, experts and bankers share insights:

Defining your audience

Younger adults usually won’t be the target demographic for a class, as they tend to be drawn to digitally-dispensed advice, notes J.D. Power’s McAdam.

Extensive digital and in-person instruction are both needed to satisfy the customer base at Chelsea Groton Bank, says Lori Dufficy, EVP and director of sales at the $1.16 billion Norwich, Connecticut institution. “Some people are dealing with unique or more complex challenges and circumstances. We are better able to modify a curriculum in a face-to-face class than digitally,” she explains.

However, even younger adults can be drawn to classes, says Dufficy, noting that homebuyer seminars attract ages 30 to 50.

Because classes are usually attended by a certain demographic niche, they shouldn’t be rolled out widely, advises McAdam. “They should be based upon market need at a geographic level,” he says.

Selecting relevant topics

Don’t neglect the obvious—asking customers what they’d like to learn—says Dominic Perkins, SVP at Savings Bank of Walpole in Walpole, New Hampshire. “We had a poll on our LinkedIn and Facebook pages, asking people what [classes]they’d like to see in 2020,” he says.

Ask branch staffers to gather information about people’s interests, advises financial services marketing consultant April Rudin of the Rudin Group.

At the branch level, “most banks have at least some access to data,” on customers’ spending, savings and borrowing habits, says McAdam. That data can inform the type of advice customers would likely appreciate. For instance, if a high portion of the base is younger, with several loan relationships, debt consolidation could be relevant.

When it launched its “Smart Women” seminar series in 2018, the $1.78 billion First Citizens National Bank relied on the advisory boards it maintains in each of its markets to home in on the most useful programming. “We are in 26 locations throughout Tennessee and run from rural to fairly urban, and all of those markets have different needs,” shares Judy Long, the bank’s president and COO.

Ensuring attendance

“Sometimes the first time we hold a class isn’t quite as successful as when we’ve already done it,” says Dufficy. “If we don’t get attendance when a new class is offered, we reevaluate why that is,” she adds. “Is the naming problematic?…Are we not reaching the target market?”

In-branch signage, pushing word out via the bank’s social media and inviting attendees of past classes are typical methods of drawing people.

Placing videos of past seminars on the bank’s site also help familiarize the uninitiated with classes.

Having too many attendees can also be a concern for Savings Bank of Walpole, which conducts its seminars in a room holding 35. Newspaper ads provide the primary publicity for the classes, and would-be attendees are asked to RSVP, so that the bank can schedule an additional class if necessary.

Welcoming community

In addition to branch-based classes, banks often use locations elsewhere in the community—often in partnership with a non-profit. The reason? Typically, all bank classes are open to the public. But, Dufficy notes, some non-customers might assume they can’t attend when classes are on a bank site.

First Citizens National Bank initiated its first seminar at a women’s conference held at a community college, and since then the bank has relied heavily on local libraries. “Part of our branding is concern for our communities,” says Long. And public venues reinforce that message.

Capital One has garnered lots of publicity for its “cafés,” re-imagined branches that mix the idea of community with education. Although the three dozen cafés are equipped to handle the same transactions as traditional branches, the cafés, with offerings like free wi-fi and spaces to work, mimic a relaxed coffee shop. “Money workshops,” conducted in connection with non-profits, are held in café community rooms. One workshop, repeated in ten markets, taught principles of financial independence to clients of the non-profit Dress for Success.

The workshops are “one of the ways we are helping our communities succeed, with the hope of building rewarding partnerships that last,” says Jennifer Windbeck, the bank’s managing vice president for cafés and branches.

Avoiding sales pitch

Whether or not a class focuses on a subject related to a banking product—or is held on or off a bank site—it’s important to avoid “anything with even the slightest whiff of a sales pitch,” Perkins says.

Although the majority of Savings Bank of Walpole speakers are bank experts, Perkins invites only guest instructors who will keep the presentation objective. For instance, speakers understand that they’re barred from collecting attendees’ names and contact information.

“No one needs to come to a [class]without getting something of value,” Rudin points out. And value is rarely associated with heavy-handed sales techniques. “People see right through that.”

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