Deb Stewart_resize
Deb Stewart Mar 9, 2018

What really counts: How observing bank branches optimizes staffing beyond the numbers

Banks—so much built around numerical precision—often hew to a business equation that looks like this:  X transactions = Y branch staff. Elementary algebra, right? Or is it really that simple?

Before you answer, ask yourself three questions:

  • Why are some branches with the same transaction levels overwhelmed—while others appear to have idle time?
  • Are there opportunities to drive more efficiency and impact transaction times?
  • Do the new technologies you’ve invested in create the efficiencies you predicted—and for that matter, maximum efficiencies?

The only way to answer these questions is not so much mathematical as thematical: to observe and analyze.

Watch the activities behind your transaction numbers. Observation and analysis will prove key to bolster both your general understanding of branch operations and answer your technology-driven questions, for example. Is the tech introduced really being used? Don’t rely on self-reporting, either. The way people think they spend their time normally represents a significant departure from the actual answer. (Or if you like, X staff perceptions do not equal Y branch realities.)

Observing to refine staffing

Banks continually evolve their staffing models. They collect data on transaction volumes, market potential and demographics. Time studies map the actual time transactions take to complete. But the mere recording of times won’t provide the vital information you need. Instead, you can create greater value as you enhance the standard time study with these steps:

  • Select a range of branch types for observation. Create a representative sampling of branches in your network: rural, urban, in-stores, heavy commercial, etc.
  • Clearly communicate with branch associates prior to observation. Provide assurance that this assessment will not rate individual performance or aim to reduce staff in that branch. Observers who fundamentally understand the retail banking environment, and are unknown to your branch associates, are most effective.
  • Observe what’s happening throughout the branch. Watch the staff and record what each associate does, using five-minute intervals. Include both customer-facing and non-customer-facing activities. This will yield significant insights. Does your branch staff spend lots of time on processing activities you could offload? Do you have bankers working the lobby when they could sell customers already on site?
  • Track customer arrivals. This helps you understand demand and fluctuations in wait times.
  • Time transactions, record session details and take notes. Your notes will reveal anomalies as well as patterns. This creates an opportunity to improve processes and craft a consistent customer experience.
  • Expect to spend three to five days in each site. “Human nature says that the first few hours will not be typical,” says Mark Shonebarger, former SVP at Huntington Bank and a retail banking consultant based in Westerville, Ohio. “The Hawthorne Effect proves that behavior changes when people know they’re being watched. That tends to wear off and you start to get a truer picture of what’s happening in your sites.”
  • Commit to thorough analysis. Review all this information with people from various disciplines. Bringing different points of view to the table may reveal unexpected root causes behind identified issues and reveal potential solutions.

Many banks find that the observational element of a branch staffing study can make the greatest impact. It often improves processes that impact customer experience and efficiency. It may suggest a reassessment of branch roles in transaction migration or other retail goals. It may even result in increasing staff to grow revenue. (Y branch staff + Z additions = A-level profits).

Adding observation to the equation

Today, new branch technologies get introduced routinely. Specific assumptions on improved customer satisfaction, higher sales levels or reduced staffing often drive these investments—many times with branch choreography and workflow in mind. But is that what really happens? These observation steps offer a slight variation:

  • Identify a representative sampling of branch types.
  • Ensure that observers understand the field study goals. This sharpens the relevance of observations.
  • Spend several days in each site.
  • Talk to bankers about why they do what they do. One bank found low usage of newly installed self-service kiosks because bankers doubted their reliability. In numerous instances, they had started to move a customer onto the kiosk only to find it hadn’t worked—and so stopped using them.

What next—and beyond?

Dive into the notes and the data. Bring back the quantitative data—including transaction volumes, market potential and demographics. Leverage both qualitative and quantitative findings to lay the foundation for process improvements and more accurate efficiency assumptions in your staffing model. And make sure you understand how to maximize positive changes to your branch network.

“Observation and analysis will result in a far more refined staffing model,” says Heather Bellardo, Principal Consultant at Kiran Analytics. “But don’t stop there. When you look at new branch formats; system changes such as rolling out a discovery tool; regulatory changes such as requirements for accepting third-party deposits; or any of the many changes in your branch network, get out there and observe. Make observation and analysis part of your institutional DNA. Your ROI will reflect it.”

So let’s review: Observation + analysis + company DNA = ROI squared. Solving that problem to your benefit can be simpler than you think.

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Deb Stewartis an independent consultant working for the financial services industry. She is based in Charlotte, N.C. and can be reached at

If you enjoyed this article, check out: A higher interest level: Sizing up the challenges for deposits in 2018, Innovation superhighway: Nine leaders map the fast lanes to financial services success and Eliminating customer apathy and driving engagement

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