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The Strategic Implications of Tellers Selling


“Tellers must do more than transact – they must also sell!”

If you’re coming to that conclusion at your bank, you are not alone and you have good reason. Tellers see more customers than anybody else in the bank. The transactions they handle often give off obvious indicators of sales opportunities. With branch volumes declining and facilities smaller, it’s no longer feasible to have specialized roles such as managers, lenders, new accounts reps, tellers, teller supervisors, etc. In banking, as in every other industry making do with fewer people, those staff remaining will have to make a greater contribution to revenue.

Technology has naturally played a role in this transformation, first by usurping many of tellers’ old responsibilities. Cash recyclers have eliminated, or significantly reduced, balancing and cash counting. In addition, self-service technology also allows customers to conduct their own transactions. Since tellers don’t need to be so deeply skilled in operational matters, they can focus on the needs of the customer rather than the transaction. Most banks recognize this, at least in theory; the term “teller” has been typically transformed into “customer service representative,” or something similar.

So yes, tellers, by whatever name, must sell. ATMs, or other self-service technology, can be programmed to take the deposit, analyze the customer’s profile for signs of “next product needed” and promptly explain its benefits to the customer. But tellers are people, with clear job expectations. No sustained behavioral change ever happened just because management changed the job description.

Clearly, making the move from teller to seller will take more than handing the teller a script and promising an incentive if they deliver it. And it should take more. We are, after all, talking about growing revenue from current resources. If revenue could be raised by fiat and title changes, we wouldn’t need most of our executive apparatus.

Just as clearly, it means providing tellers with more skills, and that’s where many banks tend to start. But in our experience, starting with sales skills can be a recipe for frustrated sellers, disengaged managers and unimpressed customers. What might otherwise sound like a simple change to a job description is actually a significant strategic initiative. Think about it. We’re talking about taking our largest category of workers (the face of our bank to the customer), fundamentally changing their job and compensation and establishing them as a fresh source of revenue. What could go wrong? Or rather, how to prevent what could so obviously go wrong?

The answer is to focus up front on four areas: strategy, organization structure, branch efficiency and sales process:

Strategy. A change of this significance obviously has strategic implications across the board.  How will this change alter the customer experience? Competitively, what are our risks? What are competitors doing? Can our Information Technology (IT) support our intentions? Are we constrained by our facilities? Which products can tellers sell and which should be reserved for sales platform staff and branch managers?

To make these strategic decisions, it is necessary to make real adjustments in the following areas:

Organization Structure. Altering the job of your most visible employee clearly has implications for your retail organization structure. If tellers are sellers, how does that change what new accounts people do? Or do we institute “universal” tellers? Do their supervisors need to be differently enabled? What does it mean for future recruiting and for our managerial pipeline? Do we create internal competition, or strive for a team-selling environment, with group incentives?

If, like many banks, you have already gone through a serious effort to flatten your organization structure and align it to changing customer needs and behaviors, then making tellers sellers will force you to re-consider your staffing model. If you have ever prematurely announced an organizational change, you only make that mistake once. Taking the time to organize well and to communicate the changes thoroughly in advance is well worth the time it takes.

One example of a bank that altered their organizational structure is Oregon’s Umpqua Bank. They revamped their “branches” and converted them into “stores,” with each store having two job families: the store manager and Universal Associate (UA). Once trained, every UA could handle any customer need, from basic teller work to new account transactions, loan applications and assisting with operational questions. The UA rotates positions on a regular basis, to retain the basic skills in all the operating areas of the store.

Branch Efficiency. Your branch staffing model was no doubt calibrated on tellers doing transactions as efficiently as possible, while other job types handled the sales-oriented activities. Now many aspects of that efficiency model are different. Sellers, after all, are measured on sales results, not efficiency. And yet it has probably never been more important for your branches to operate at peak efficiency. How will your measure change? How will you recalibrate your staffing model?

Before launching this change, it is important to articulate a sales process that reflects your new staffing model.

Sales Process. Today, your sales process consists of deliberate and codified steps to identify an opportunity, qualify prospects, initiate contact, describe the offer, overcome objections, emphasize the benefits and close the deal. It even includes the technology you’ve invested in to support it. But when tellers become sellers, should they follow the same set of steps? What accommodations need to be made for your newly minted sales staff?  And most of all, what will customers think?

From the customer’s point of view, this friendly teller who handled transactions efficiently is now doing something else and taking more of their time – which they didn’t expect. It’s a legitimate concern that, if the sales process change is handled poorly, customers could feel oversold and taken advantage of. So training on selling and communication skills will be essential.

And that applies to new technology on the front line. The cost of database technology/customer relationship management (CRM) has decreased dramatically, enabling even community banks to drive next-best sale prompts and other scripts to the front line with great results. Given the maturation of CRM systems, there are many experienced third parties who are more than capable in helping banks leverage the technology.

So, while the opportunity is compelling and the potential lucrative, it’s important to note that the banks that are succeeding with a new branch sales model recognized at the start that behavioral change comes from planning for conscientious and comprehensive strategic change.

Mr. Zayko is a director of Austin, Tex.-based Peak Performance Consulting Group, which specializes in retail and community banking. Based in Montclair, N.J., he can be reached at [email protected].