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The four corners of the universe: Four universal staffing challenges and how to tackle them


Somewhere between the concerns of bank marketers and discerning consumers, one essential truth sometimes gets lost: Great customer experience starts with engaged, productive employees.

Thus it’s no surprise that workforce optimization dominates as a priority for banking executives who strive to transform branches. And to optimize their branch workforce, banks must implement, pilot or investigate the universal banker model.

In a recent workforce strategies study by Kiran Analytics, bankers identified universal banker deployment as a key strategy for optimizing the workforce. The study drilled down to look at the industry’s progress in adopting the universal staffing model. Just 23 percent of respondent banks said they have implemented it and it’s working well. As for the other three-fourths or so, 28 percent have implemented but are running into issues; 10 percent have completed a pilot program and are ready to start—and 39 percent are still investigating.

The study identified four common problems that impact implementation, as well as potential solutions:

1. 38 percent saw newly trained staff “migrating” back to more comfortable roles.

  • Start with the proper staffing level and mix; continue to monitor and change.
  • Expect all management levels to take responsibility for observing the real-life results.

Bankmechanics CEO Dave Martin believes a proper staffing mix can nix migration back to old ways. “Not all branches need 100 percent universals,” he points out. “Many branches have sufficient volumes to support full-time tellers. If there’s a lot of teller activity, some universal bankers will naturally migrate back.”

Branch observation and systems data can help set staffing levels, project the need for full-time tellers and determine how universal bankers should split their time (for example; 50/50 teller-sales, 75/25, etc). Then managers across all levels need to watch what’s happening in the branches themselves. Do you see previous tellers or bankers moving back to old roles? It’s everyone’s job to observe.

2. 35 percent had no effective way to ensure time is distributed between service and sales.

  • Understand how market characteristics influence roles from sales to service distribution.
  • Set target service levels upfront and monitor them consistently.

Ben Hopper, vice president, Retail Strategy and Transformation for First Tennessee Bank shares his experience: “With the addition of workforce management tools, we’ve been able to go to the next step of clearly delineating the actual work content of a UB, and where their ‘generalist’ abilities best support the customer engagement and experience we want in the lobby of the branch. This may have a greater focus on sales or on service; it all depends on the demographics and opportunity in the market, and the customers who walk into that branch.”

Randy Ross, executive vice president at Kiran Analytics, points to another best practice. “Applying analytics in a staffing model allows you to set target service levels up front. Do you want 80 percent of teller transactions served within five minutes? Do you want 80 percent of sales and service transactions within ten? Regular measurement against these targets will indicate whether you have a successful distribution.”

3. 28 percent struggle with acquiring new talent with the proper skills and experience.

  • Focus on retaining the talent you have today with careful staffing.
  • Look inside your bank: Some people have already decided they want to be bankers.
  • Look outside for problem solvers when you have a solid training program in place.
  • Give staff members a reason to stay by offering multiple career path options.

Views on whether to look inside or outside financial services vary; all have merit. Martin points out existing bank staffers who opt to become bankers enjoy working in financial services and possess the basic skills. Additionally, Martin suggests you consider non-financial services candidates who come from problem solving backgrounds. “Look for people accustomed to thinking on their feet and serving customers—but for this to work, you need a rock-solid training program.”

Providing career growth opportunities remains key to employee retention: “Levels of universal bankers create an environment for growth,” Ross adds. “The progression from a UB1 to a UB2 can be based on training segments completed. Provide opportunities to earn certifications in areas such as business banking or mortgage lending, leading to opportunities to specialize. And you can demonstrate that universal bankers can become branch managers.”

4. 22 percent pay more than tellers but are not getting the results that were expected.

  • Not all branches should be staffed with 100 percent universal bankers: Tellers are still relevant.
  • Get out to your branches and witness what’s going on.

“No one wants to pay the price to recruit, train and compensate universal bankers, only to spend much of their day playing the teller role,” says Bob Meara, senior analyst at Celent. Understanding the unique staffing needs of individual branches is essential. Dedicated tellers remain appropriate if a branch has significant transaction volumes.

So while some banks succeed with universal staffing deployment, a majority still find themselves in the process of forging their universal associate model with proper skill sets and optimal capacity. Banks no longer need a specialist in every branch—but they don’t need a universal associate, either.

What it could come down to, in the end, is a concerted effort to promote, find and keep team players who understand the value of deepening customer relationships on every level. This much remains true: For success in universal banking, many stars in your banking universe will need to align—perhaps none more so that the stellar talent in your midst, and right outside your door.

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