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Improving Customer Service in the Branch

Financial institutions, and for that matter, all service-oriented businesses, tend to struggle with customer service. Few (if any) companies become customer service stars without a clear plan to achieve their goals – and appropriate execution of the associated strategies.

Fortunately, many of the problems that hamper good customer service are often fairly easy to avoid. Furthermore, part of managing the customer service experience is managing the way those customers perceive it. Based on our experience working with financial institutions, the following actions can prove helpful:

Encourage Positive Attitudes. When wait times become too long, tellers and lobby service representatives (LSRs) feel pressured to perform. This affects their attitude and can worsen the customer experience. Some of the things you can do to help branch staff stay positive include training them to remain calm and cheerful under pressure. This doesn’t have to involve expensive workshops and programs. Something as simple as role-playing exercises, with one employee playing the part of the hurried customer, can be very beneficial.

It is also helpful to institute performance incentives that have both a performance and an “attitude” component (e.g. a bonus for customer praise). Properly implemented, incentive plans lead to stronger buy-in from your staff and result in significant improvements to their morale.

Clearly Define Staff Roles. One of the biggest mistakes branch management makes is to immediately jump in on the teller line (or let LSRs or teller supervisors do it) when any sort of wait time occurs. This is an inefficient use of managers’ time, which should remain focused on their primary responsibilities. One highly beneficial activity for LSRs, teller supervisors or branch managers is to speak briefly with customers who are waiting. If resources permit, they should engage these customers in a brief conversation, perhaps answering their questions ahead of time and/or soliciting feedback on their banking experiences. This reduces the perceived time customers wait.

Customers should be the sole focus of LSRs and tellers when they are in front of them. Auxiliary duties should be assigned only during non-customer-facing time. Using time-blocking/scheduling tools (especially for tellers) to forecast lull periods and proactively assign auxiliary duties during those periods is an excellent way to ensure staff stay focused and productive. This isn’t just about customer service. Employees who attempt to multi-task while engaging customers are also more likely to make mistakes. Especially for tellers, transaction accuracy is paramount. Distractions can result in major errors that leave them – and the branch – out of balance.

Some of the auxiliary duties tellers often perform while on the line that are best scheduled during non-customer-facing time include:

  • Balancing daily transactions and verifying cash totals;  
  • Investigating and resolving out-of-balance conditions;  
  • Performing file maintenance and account changes, as needed;  
  • Performing related clerical duties, as required;  
  • Making outbound sales and account-holder support calls.

Avoid Overstaffing. For branch management that doesn’t possess sophisticated technology to analyze traffic trends and make accurate schedule forecasts, it often seems that the easiest way to improve customer service is to add more staff. While having more staff available during peak periods can reduce wait times, there is no guarantee it will. No one, including the employees themselves, wants staff just standing around. Excess staff may become engaged in other activities (busy work) and be otherwise occupied precisely when you need them most. Furthermore, overstaffing generally reduces morale and is certainly terrible for productivity and your bottom line.

A much better solution is to implement a proactive scheduling solution, based on historical data such as customer assistance and teller transaction volumes, that illustrates when and where staff will actually be needed. Even with such assistance, scheduling can be a challenge for banks that have short peak-volume periods. Once you have solid data identifying your “crunch” times, you should be able to alleviate the scheduling challenge by using an appropriate mix of both part-time and full-time employees. Don’t be afraid to schedule for shorter timeframes, as low as three or four hours. Students, young parents and others with flexibility are often willing to work short shifts.

Manage the Lobby Efficiently. Customer satisfaction in the lobby is just as important – more so for some customers – as in the teller line. Lobby customers are often having deeper conversations that can require an extra attention to detail, unlike the teller window, where customers are dealing with less complex transactions. Successful banks optimize not only the wait times for customers to see an LSR but also the time customers spend with the LSR and the business that is conducted during that meeting.

It is very difficult for a branch manager or other supervisor to discern whether or not LSR sessions with customers are too long or too short, unless they implement some type of computerized tracking system, which can work like this: At arrival, customers sign in with either a bank associate with an iPad or stationed at a self-service kiosk. From that moment until their session with the LSR is complete, the time they spend waiting and being helped are tracked (separately). The identity of the customer is also noted in the system through a secure method.

Also tracked are the items discussed during the session, including any new products sold, issues resolved, etc. Once the tracked sessions are aggregated by employee and branch, the resulting data can give management incredible insight into when lobbies are busy, how long customers are waiting, which employees are spending productive time and which are spending long sessions with little sell-through. Lobby tracking systems also identify high- and low-performing employees and time periods, leading to more targeted coaching opportunities.

Be Sensible About Customer Expectations: Customers expect a short wait; they do not necessarily require no wait at all, an idea that is often erroneously associated with excellent customer service. Most importantly, what they don’t want is a long, unexplained wait with an unfriendly, inefficient or inaccurate outcome at the end. In this way, banks are like every other service sector. You’ll wait longer to be seated at a table at a great restaurant as at a mediocre one; you’ll accept longer lead times for appointments with a doctor you like compared to one who frustrates or upsets you.

Banks that keep these universal principles in mind and take a professional approach to scheduling and running their lobbies and teller lines will keep current customers satisfied and encourage them to refer new ones.

Mr. Scott is President/CEO of Alpharetta, Ga.-based Financial Management Solutions, Inc. (FMSI), which provides financial institutions with business intelligence and performance management systems for efficient branch staff scheduling and lobby management. He can be reached at [email protected].