As customers' needs change, banks balance mortar and mobile

Chelsea Groton Bank set to make its remodeled branch in the Oak Tree Plaza on Gold Star Highway in Groton more about conversation and learning. Here, bank employee Lillian Cook, left, meets with customer Corina Pinder on  Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Chelsea Groton Bank set to make its remodeled branch in the Oak Tree Plaza on Gold Star Highway in Groton more about conversation and learning. Here, bank employee Lillian Cook, left, meets with customer Corina Pinder on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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This spring, Bank of America is launching Erica, a voice- and chat-driven virtual assistant.

Bank of America and Citizens Bank are two of many partners with Zelle, a platform for person-to-person payment that is akin to Venmo and Square Cash.

Liberty Bank recently launched a program called Money Manager, a tool that aggregates customers' Liberty and non-Liberty accounts.

As more and more people turn to online and mobile channels for banking, the question for banks becomes: What is the best way to balance the addition of digital features with efforts to draw people into physical branches?

For Bank of America, spokeswoman Tara Burke attributed the company's upcoming closing of its Waterford branch and both Mystic branches to customers' increased utilization of online and mobile channels.

Joe Gianni, Greater Hartford market president for Bank of America, said last week that decisions to close branches are based on geography and the distance to a receiving branch.

If people are doing more online, then the bank looks "to find that high-touch center, where you're going to have more specialists there, for people to come in and do mortgage and do small business," he said. Bank of America is thus concentrating business for what he calls the "more complex needs."

Gianni noted that while Bank of America is closing some local branches, it is expanding into new markets, such as opening three centers in Pittsburgh.

Because of digitization, he said, "You don't need to have as many banking centers in order to have entrée into a market."

Nationwide, Bank of America has 800,000 people come into branches every day, and 70 percent of sales are face-to-face, Gianni said. It has 35 million digital customers, 25 million of whom do mobile banking. According to Burke, Bank of America is seeing 300,000 checks deposited per day on phones, and that figure continues to grow.

In Groton, Chelsea Groton Bank offered a different response to the growth of online banking: doubling down and renovating its Gold Star Highway branch, in an effort to make the setting more about conversation and learning.

Chelsea Groton President Michael Rauh said that since the December reopening, there have been "terrific" numbers for seminar attendance, and the conversations with branch employees have become "much deeper."

"Even though customers don't use them as much, if at all, they still want to have a bank branch available to them," he said.

Similarly, the branch redesign at Citizens Bank is about "transforming branches to make them more conducive to consultative conversations," said Sarah Lindstrom, retail director for southern New England.

This includes bringing ATMs into the lobby, so employees can show customers how to do banking through ATMs.

Finding the right balance

Lindstrom said Citizens Bank has "adopted a holistic approach," evolving its digital offerings while still providing the face-to-face interaction many customers value.

"At this time for banks and credit unions, certainly in our market, you've got to be both," said Brian Orenstein, president and CEO of Charter Oak Federal Credit Union. "You can't just be digital, and you can't just be physical branches."

Orenstein noted that while some banks are closing branches, Charter Oak has opened four branches in the past five years.

Those branches are in Mohegan Sun, Mystic and Putnam, along with Charter Oak's headquarters in Waterford. Orenstein said that Mohegan Sun approached Charter Oak and "gave us that space for free so that we can provide a better service to their employees, so hats off to them."

But in 2018, he said, the company will be more focused on digital than on physical locations. Orenstein said that transaction counts in banks have not gone down but have stayed flat, while digital transactions have gone up.

He said Charter Oak has not gone as far as eliminating the teller line, an action being taken in some Liberty Bank branches.

Minnie Saleh, head of the retail banking division at Liberty Bank, said the industry average is a 5 percent decrease in teller transactions per year, though the decline at Liberty is smaller.

"We are seeing a migration in our customer base to more heavily rely upon digital channels than the actual physical branch," she said. Saleh added that ATM transactions are also declining, in part because customers can get cash back while using their debit cards at supermarkets.

Michael Casparino, Northern Connecticut president for People's United Bank, said the bank is not trying to push technology just because it's out there, but is making sure it's what the customers want.

Casparino said People's United has conducted focus groups, surveys and other research with existing, past and potential customers over the past 12 to 18 months.

To him, the future of the branch experience involves turning bankers into "digital advocates" who will demonstrate technological features to customers.

When setting up a checking account, for example, a banker will set up the mobile app and fraud protection, and demonstrate features like person-to-person payment and mobile check depositing.


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