A Universal Staffing Mix

As the traditional bank branch shrinks or even disappears in coming years, what becomes of branch staffing models?

“The short answer is that everybody is making things work more efficiently and to improve engagement with the customer,” says David Hawkins, senior vice president and director of customer experience for Huntington Bancshares Inc. of Columbus, Ohio. “It’s not just about cutting numbers of people; it’s about repositioning the branch.”

With customers increasingly migrating to electronic channels, the branch is unquestionably becoming less useful as a place to conduct basic transactions. Darryl Demos, a partner with consultancy Novantas Inc. of New York, N.Y., says that banks that are “aggressive” with self-service and alternative technologies are seeing as much as a 10% per-year reduction in branch transactions.

“And the labor portion is changing too,” Demos says, predicting that the number of teller positions will “drop dramatically” over the next few years from 500,000 to roughly 100,000. Instead of traditional tellers, more banks will put in place “universal bankers,” or branch staffers who perform basic transactions but can also walk customers through products and services and help with more complex issues. Some banks, like Umpqua Bancshares of Roseburg, Ore., have utilized universal bankers for years. This new model requires “everybody’s skill level to go up,” says Demos.

Universal Appeal

SunTrust Banks Inc. is in the midst of strategically revamping its branch network staffing, a move that is likely to see the bank experimenting with different branch formats and more universal banker associates, says Tom McDermott, senior vice president for retail sales and channel executive. Atlanta-based SunTrust, which is seeing a nearly 10% per-year reduction in transactions in its branches, already staffs its nearly 200 in-store branches with universal bankers.

“Those people in the teller roles are going to have to contribute to sales more, become more universal,” McDermott says. “But I don’t see the number of branch staff overall going down.”

Iberia Bank Corp. of Lafayette, La., has been using universal bankers to conduct teller transactions and work the platform, according to Bob Kottler, executive vice president and director of retail and small business banking. Working as a universal banker in this emerging branch environment means expanding the range of functions one performs and also becoming more adept at using technology and more flexible with scheduling, he adds. For example, Iberia is using teller cash recyclers to more efficiently balance its cash drawers; universal bankers need to become familiar with this and other emerging branch-based technology, as well as helping hand-hold customers through self-service tools in branches.

Like many banks, Iberia is also hiring more part-time branch personnel to fill the demand for longer and expanded customer hours, Kottler says. “Having a combination of full- and part-time staff helps us. There are times when the branches are busy and times when they’re not.”

Huntington is gradually transitioning to a universal banker model to “improve skills sets and upping engagement” among its staff, says Hawkins. He expects the bank’s more than 715 branches to be transformed fully to its branch-of-the-future model by 2020. For example, all of Huntington’s 130 in-store branches, and many of its free-standing ones, are already staffed by these jack-of-all-trades branch bankers.

Recruiting and training for these new positions is critical to getting the right people in place to carry forward the bank’s emerging mission, Hawkins adds. “When training for these new positions, there are different skills that folks need to be up to speed on. They need people skills, and an ability to listen as well as understand and identify customer needs and display empathy for customers.”

“It’s about having more of a retail sense than a traditional banking sense,” Hawkins adds. “After all, the business we’re in is retail. It just happens that we sell financial products and services.”

Noting that people skills are “more difficult to coach” than the “nuts and bolts” of banking, Hawkins say Huntington often recruits branch staff with a retail background. And since the newer branch models also involve more self-service technology for customers, would-be branch bankers need to have a “comfort level with technology and the ability to demonstrate it,” he adds.

While the need for staff that can perform traditional teller services will not go away any time soon, “we need people that are flexible and open to being trained for other jobs,” says SunTrust’s McDermott.

Ms. Hoffman is a contributing writer to BAI Banking Strategies based in Ansbach, Germany.