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Branch of the Future Must Be Both High Tech, High Touch

With mobile and online banking adoption rates spiking, credit unions from Vancouver to Maine are championing branch designs with forward-looking concepts and technologies aimed at enhancing the member experience without losing the human touch.

"We had to reinvent ourselves and create some value as to why people would want to come to a physical location," said Island Savings Credit Union COO Randy Bertsch. "We had to create more of an interactive environment as opposed to a trans-active environment and redefine what type of activities should be occurring in each location."

With 16 branches, the Vancouver-based $1.5 billion Island Savings CU, serving 70,000 members, recently redesigned six of its 13 locations as "branches of the future." This goal was undertaken in partnership with RATIO Architecture, Interior Design + Planning, a firm that specializes in the credit union industry.

"As an overview, we wanted to create a more public face and personal touch," said Bertsch. "Our goal was to change the concept of banking to more retail, shopping experience. So we have moved from the fortress idea of a bank to a more transparent concept — lots of glass and windows so members can see activities and feel more welcomed."

RATIO Principal Christopher Pollard said Island Savings CU is distinct because when executives began to approach which technologies should be offered in the design, they understood that the new platform should support person-to-person relationships, not obscure them.

"When CU clients begin to reconsider their brand or renovations that involve anticipating the future, sometimes panic ensues," said Pollard. "I often see clients defaulting to what they see as tangible using conspicuous technology to demonstrate that they are forward thinking such as oversized screens and gimmicky technology that will be dated in a year."

Branch Tech Dos and Don'ts

As Pollard noted, a danger exists when throwing technologies at the proverbial wall to see what sticks. While this approach may have some appeal, the goal of increasing transactions and offering new services is often not realized.

"Financial institutions try to outduel each other in the marketing of their technological savviness," said Pollard. "While the need to demonstrate leadership in this regard is clear, some institutions seem to take the approach: technology for technology's sake."

During its discovery period with Island Savings CU, for example, Pollard explained that the CU was in discussions with suppliers for Microsoft Surface tablets, similar to those used by Royal Bank. Research, however, found that many members did not want to publicly engage with the information presented — standing in the middle of the branch as they feared others could see sensitive data. This, he said, flew in the face of engaging members.

And while many financial institutions looking at a new branch design will consider providing internet stations, Pollard said that due to the proliferation of personal devices, it is an antiquated approach that shouldn't be considered. "We provide free Wi-Fi that allows members to continue using their personal devices," said Bertsch. "When members have an appointment and are waiting to meet with an employee, instead of handing out magazines and newspapers, they are now offered iPads for browsing."

Whereas more credit unions are taking a new approach to branch design, Gene Ardito, president/CEO of the Portland, Maine-based cPort Credit Union, said it's not necessarily about what technologies could be offered, but determining the needs of members in specific locations.

"I may be an outlier here, but I do think the branch is still very important to our members," said Ardito. "A good location is critical, leading-edge technology is very important and having great employees is the differentiator."

With four branches and 15,000 members, the $160 million CU has taken a mixed approach to respective branch design. For example, Ardito said some redesigned branches are more traditional in look and feel. Conversely, another branch incorporates the dialogue/pod banking approach.

"The teller recyclers are also a new technology for us," he noted. "They provide more efficient and secure teller operations, which allows us to utilize the pod/dialogue teller approach. We also incorporate electronic marketing using flat screen TVs wherever we can. It really depends on the location and what we think is best for the member in that location."

For its recent branch designs, cPort Credit Union partnered with Gawron Turgeon Architects, which has worked with numerous credit unions in Maine.

"Some leading technologies we are using include remote teller systems at branches where members can perform transactions inside branch buildings with smart technology," said the firm's Principal and Designer Mary Turgeon. "One of our projects with Five County Credit Union in Brunswick, Maine, for example, utilized smart offices for members to open new accounts and apply for loans via video conferencing."

As a result of its new design philosophy, Island Savings CU has changed the way its employees interact with members. For example, meetings with members no longer take place in open space. Rather, employees have private offices creating a comfortable environment for members to engage.

Additionally, Bertsch explained that the CU introduced an internal member queue system where a CU greeter can better manage members as they arrive for their appointments. This allows employees to be alerted of the member presence, immediately access their data thus being prepared for the meeting.

Once in the office, employee and member both view wall-mounted large monitors and collectively view the information as it is keyed in to the system. "This way members do have to wonder what bankers are doing on the other side of the desk and what they are pounding into the machine," said Bertsch.

"This allows us to show members the new tools and technologies we have and makes them feel more consultative in the interview process," he said adding that if a question arises that is beyond the purview of the employee, the same monitor is used to locate a specialist and a video conference is initiated.

Setting a Timeline

After demographics are determined with applicable member needs and services, understanding the timeline of a branch design or redesign is critical. In many cases, a credit union needs to take a long view. And with technologies ever-changing, this is an all-important consideration.

For a new location, an interior renovation in an unoccupied space may take nearly one year with four months of construction," said Pollard. This includes project confirmation through concept and design development.

"For an existing location–renovation in occupied space — you should add two to four months to the above for phased construction in an operational branch," noted Pollard. "For new buildings, with a more involved development permit process and site development work, it can vary considerably, but two to three years is not uncommon."

Over the next couple of years, Bertsch explained, the remaining 10 branches will receive new designs. If a branch is redesigned in a location that remains operational, he said the process takes roughly 16 months. "If it's a new location, these projects are taking approximately 10 months."

Moving forward, Ardito said that while cPort CU is not on the "bleeding" edge of technology, the CU will always look to be a technology leader where appropriate. In the end, however, he holds to member-first credit union ethos. "My learning is that it is the employees that make the difference, not the technology."

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