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Cultural Change for Universal Bankers


Once again, technology has raced culture to the finish line and won. As the concept of “universal banker” has gained currency far and wide, software has surfaced that can use market analytics to predict, with remarkable accuracy, branch traffic patterns, customer needs and labor needs. Which hours on which days can you expect a spike in customers wanting to open DDA accounts? When does it make sense for you to have a lender on hand, and when not? When should you ask your tellers to put on their new account hats?

No longer must those questions bedevil branch managers. Analytic software delivers the answers, which are essential to implementing a universal banker program in which branch employees cross-trained on teller, new accounts, and customer service duties can be scheduled and shifted dynamically according to predicted need. Universal bankers let branches save on labor without diminishing customer service or sales.

But as with any other significant business development, the software turns out to be the easy part. The real challenge is the people part. Banks can change their systems fast enough; changing the culture – well, that’s a different story.

The good news is that, implemented wisely, a universal banker program does address some of management’s biggest personnel woes:

Poaching by big banks. “Sometimes I feel like I’m running the training ground for (a nearby behemoth bank),” said one rueful community bank CEO. “They know who our best bankers are, and they can easily offer bigger wages and broader jobs.”

Brain drain. It’s a dilemma faced by every industry forced to worry about its personnel costs; seasoned workers cost more than entry-level workers. And banking faces another challenge – the explosion in compliance duties. “The market tells us we could bring on another loan officer but the auditors recommend two more compliance hires instead.” Seasoned bankers go elsewhere to be paid their worth.

Customer dissatisfaction. People bank with community banks in part because they want to know their banker. However, “Nothing makes our customers unhappier than finding out their favorite associate has left.”

Part-timer disengagement. It’s hard to create a cohesive culture when your staff consists mainly of part-timers who keep one eye peeled for a full-time job elsewhere or juggle their hours with you and another part-time job. “There are wonderful exceptions, but by and large, it’s hard for part-time workers to have the same commitment to customers and the bank.”

Many branch staffers are on record as welcoming the universal banker concept, especially the more seasoned members. Being cross-trained generally improves one’s job security and value to the bank. And being a more valuable employee generally translates to greater job satisfaction. But as always, there are problems: 

Dynamic scheduling may be difficult for some employees. For years, bank teller jobs have attracted good workers who need short, fairly regular hours so that they can attend to their family commitments. And these same workers often have a marked preference for a routine that, once learned, does not unduly tax their energies but allows them to interact warmly with customers and form strong relationships. Becoming a universal banker with a dynamic schedule may not appeal to them nor work with their family commitments, but losing these employees can be distressing for their customers and co-workers.

Many branch managers will not be up to the complexity of their new management responsibilities. It’s not enough to train employees on the new software; they need training and testing on the new kinds of decisions they will be weighing. As one branch manager described the early days of his company’s transition to universal bankers: “This adds so many permutations to my scheduling decisions. True, now I know almost exactly what I need where and when, but then I have to turn around and make real people decisions about it. Is Bonita ready to handle a rush of new account openings? While Matt is the best I have at cross-selling to older people with profitable accounts, he needs time off for college. And I don’t want to send Erin home again early this week, but she’s not cross-trained on insurance yet. Essentially, my intel is so much better now, but the decisions are more complex.”

Managers trying to implement this transition to a universal banker system need to keep in mind these cultural change prerequisites:

Communicate the need for change. Your staff is not blind to the changes they see in the branch, but they don’t have the clear picture that you do from the numbers, such as the shrinking branch traffic, flat branch sales and heightened competition from Internet channels. Share the numbers and help them recognize the implications.

Allow lead-time that permits branch managers and staff to take proactive action, rather than forcing change upon them. Outline the new roles and responsibilities and give them a chance to enlist in them.

Be flexible in the early stages. You may know the precise arrangements for optimizing a certain branch thanks to new software, but you can also see that today’s staffing arrangement at that location doesn’t accommodate it perfectly. Share the plan and empower the people involved to see if they can make it work before you impose your changes.

Pilot the system in selected branches and share the results widely with other branches. Don’t keep a tight lid on the pilot results as they unfold. Instead, let others see how it’s unfolding and come forward with their own answers for their own branches. Remember, sustainable change doesn’t happen overnight and change that comes from within brings greater commitment.

Don’t overlook the mundane but essential practical activities that underpin the cultural change: new job descriptions, new policies and procedures, new workflows. Not only are they essential for managing the change, but they can facilitate subsequent decisions. Management will have to make some hard decisions about which employees today will make the grade in the new environment; their job will be made easier if employees can see the new roles for themselves and estimate their own suitability for them.

Strive for objectivity in making personnel decisions, even if that means bringing in objective outsiders – perhaps other branch managers – to help assess team members where personal relationships can color judgment.

Mr. Reidl is senior managing partner and Ms. Cutillo is a partner of Atlanta-based Bank Solutions Group, LLC. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].