[Originally published in the Credit Union Journal, Feb. 24, 2021]

During a stay in London as part of a speaking tour in 1897, Mark Twain became ill. When rumors of the severity of his illness began to circulate, an American journalist sent a cable to learn the details. It was Twain himself who received the cable and famously replied, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Today, similar rumors are circulating about the future of branches, but in our experience, those reports are also greatly exaggerated. Clearly the pandemic has accelerated massive changes in service delivery, but many of those changes were happening already, especially regarding the idea of meeting consumers where they are. When it comes to service, customers have a variety of preferences depending on the region and the type of activity, among other things. The reality is that banks and credit unions will need to offer multiple service-delivery options to stay competitive, and many will determine that brick-and-mortar is an important part of the mix.

But this is not another article to explain why and how things will never be the same. Frankly, that message is getting a little old. Instead, here are a few ideas for how physical branches might evolve to better serve consumers and keep those institutions a valuable part of the community.

Point number 1

1. Bolster network security and infrastructure

Other than making coffee, there is very little that happens in a branch without the support of the network. Because security and speed are paramount, commercial-grade Wi-Fi is vital to keep branch operations humming. In addition, many services that have historically been confined to certain areas of the branch can now be offered from a tablet, the drive-thru or an interactive teller machine located somewhere else entirely. Digital signage is also important to provide information and instructions, and can even be updated in real-time from a marketing team housed in another location.

If network infrastructure is poorly designed, internal team operations, internet-based phone services and other functions will struggle to succeed. Perhaps even more important than the speed of a transaction is the security of your data. According to a 2019 survey of 571 community banks conducted by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, more than 70% of respondents ranked cybersecurity as their top concern. Digital transactions happen not only from your customers’ couches, but also increasingly at the branch itself, which is why network security should be at the top of the priority list.

Point number 2

2. Better messaging and information zones

Remember cable TV? It is still alive and well at many branches, but brand-savvy banks and credit unions are learning to utilize the branch as a platform for brand engagement. Instead of a traditional cable plug, monitors in the branch can be used to provide useful information about services, policies and safety protocols. They can be used to promote products, opportunities and community-involvement projects. Displays outside the branch can communicate important information like your business hours or how to navigate the drive-thru. A branch is a retail space, so paying attention to the sights and sounds that surround visitors will keep you from missing key opportunities to influence their experience and deepen their loyalty.

Point number 3

3. Rethink member service areas

Going forward, consumers will no longer come into your branch because they have to, but because they want to — for advice they can trust, to get things done or just to get out of the house. Rethinking the layout, the furniture and the “flow” of your spaces can help the branch become a financial advisory center rather than just a place to make a deposit. When thinking of the customer services areas in your branch, expand your thinking beyond the front door. Many banks and credit unions have begun implementing “curbside services” such as notarizing and getting documents signed. Many customers feel safer this way, and there is added convenience for the elderly, disabled customers or even mothers with children in the car. Widening the net of customer service areas may, in fact, go a long way towards winning the hearts (and loyalties) of your customers even more.

In the lobby area, consider a hand sanitizer station or temperature-check kiosk to make guests feel at ease. After that, it gets interesting. Many lenders are experimenting with a pod concept, similar to the layout of an Apple Genius Bar. At each pod, a universal banker can use a tablet to perform nearly any task a guest would visit the branch for, all from a pod that offers a degree of privacy and social distance. This might entail knocking down a few walls and replacing old furniture, but it was probably time for that anyway, right?

Point number 4

4. Improve security and access control

The key is to make your branch a welcoming place to customers while keeping out criminals. Technology can be used to protect your facility from physical intrusions that can lead to property damage or, even worse, a network security breach. Restricting entry to authorized personnel only and utilizing high-quality CCTV can help you rest more easily when the doors are closed.

Where do you go from here?

Our clients have been dealing with these issues in a variety of ways. While some have implemented network-wide changes, most have been testing certain upgrades in key locations, and learning from those changes through customer experience and operational efficiency metrics. This approach can help leadership make important decisions about the right solution for each branch. As the physical banking experience becomes equal parts advisory and transactional, consumers will appreciate the upgrades.

Staley Technologies

Thanks to our friends at Staley Technologies for their assistance in compiling these ideas. Consider asking them for a comprehensive audit to determine which solutions might make a difference in your branch.

Photo Credits: Philipp Katzenberger and Mike Petrucci (Unsplash), Eco Digital Media, Cooperator, PG Design + Build