Banks smarten up branches to woo back customers

By Candice Choi

AP Personal Finance Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- The personal touch is making a comeback.

That old-fashioned habit of stopping in at your local branch is being encouraged again as the banking industry looks to put the spark back in service.

The push to cozy up to customers is part of a strategy to compete in a radically changing marketplace. Most notably, a battery of regulations signed into law this year will sharply limit the credit and debit card revenue that fattened industry profits in recent years.

To recoup some of those lost billions, banks want to squeeze more from each customer. That means convincing them to sign up for a wider range of services, including mortgages and wealth management. And customers are still more at ease making major life decisions in person.

It explains recent moves by the industry's biggest players:

--Citi: Last week, the bank had a ribbon cutting ceremony for its first flagship location on a busy corner in New York City's Union Square neighborhood.

With sleek leather couches and soft lighting, the airy space resembles a modern hotel lobby and has a private seating area for premium customers. It also offers free WiFi and 24-hour customer service assistance via video in the ATM lobby.

At the ceremony, CEO Vikram Pandit said Citi plans to open similar locations around the country.

To inspire warmer service, the bank also shut down branches early one Saturday in September to stage revival-like training sessions for employees. They were encouraged to jump up and shout suggestions on how to win over customers.

Additionally, hours at select locations were expanded in the past year; and pay for branch managers is now tied to customer satisfaction surveys.

--Bank of America: The nation's largest bank is adding mortgage, small business and investment specialists to select branches early next year. The aim is to gauge how they can help attract more customers.

Personal bankers are also being trained to spend more time with customers.

"I'm not just trying to move customers in and out," said Felipe Pradas, who works at a Bank of America in New York City. Now he asks new customers more personal questions so he can suggest the optimal products. He even introduces them to the branch manager as a finishing touch.

Bank of America wants to diminish the frustrations that can stem from its size. Customers who have problems that can't be resolved immediately in the branch are now issued a tracking number so they know the matter won't be lost.

--Chase: The bank is continuing to expand its branch network by 400 locations to 5,600 in the next two years. An emphasis will be on mortgage, investment and small business specialists who powwow with customers one-on-one.

The focus on branches remains a gamble at a time when customers are rapidly migrating to online and mobile services for everyday transactions. Customer visits to the average branch are down by 20 percent since 2000, according to the research firm Celent.

Still, more than half of major banks expect to maintain or add to their branch networks.

Bank executives say that's in part because the branch is a literal point of entry; it's still where the vast majority of account openings take place. Most customers also still visit branches, even if less frequently, and are comforted knowing they can get live help if needed.

But now the industry wants to squeeze more from branches.

To parlay the basic checking account into a more lucrative relationship, however, customers need to feel good about service. That hasn't been the case in recent years.

Customer satisfaction with big banks has been on a downward trend since 2007, according to the widely watched American Customer Satisfaction Index. Some of that was likely driven by worries over the stability of big banks. But dissatisfaction also played a role.

"Customers were looking for that personal touch, that local decision making," said Karen Tyson of the Independent Community Bankers of America. "They were finding that these national banks are huge entities where the customer becomes a number, and not a person."

It's too early to tell whether they'll be able turn around their tarnished image. But the directive to do so comes from the top.

In a recent presentation to investors, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said the company was looking to "deepen relationships" to capture a greater portion of customers' wealth. He noted that clients of its Merrill Lynch brokerage unit have more than $500 billion of deposits and $400 million of mortgages with competitors.

It's a long-neglected opportunity the entire industry is waking up to.

"Banks realize they have millions of checking accounts that don't have a mortgage or a home equity line of credit," said Jim Hawkes, who helps design branches for consulting firm Reynolds, Smith and Hills Inc.

"Now they realize they have this incredible brick-and-mortar infrastructure they can use to cross sell. Because people still want to come in and talk."

Published: Mon, Dec 20, 2010