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Fast-Track Citizens

Time at the branch shouldn't be wasted.

Why do people continue to use bank branches despite the ready availability of automated alternatives? Who knows?

But since they do, Citizens Bank has continued to place the branch at the center of its retail banking strategy. "It has always been our mainstay, because that's what our customers have wanted," says Bill Wray, chief information officer at Citizens Bank , the U.S. subsidiary of Royal Bank of Scotland (Edinburgh; assets: $67.6 billion). "As long as it's popular with our customers, it's popular with me."

Indeed, the total number of branches in the U.S. has remained at or around 110,000 for the past seven years, even as consolidation in the banking industry has put an increasing share under the control of commercial banks. That statistic illustrates the continued customer need for personal attention.

"Customers have really adopted the online channel fairly well in terms of self-service, but what they still won't do is fill out an application online," says Jerry Silva, a banking analyst at TowerGroup (Needham, Mass.). "When it comes time to actually signing on the bottom line, they still want to walk into a branch and talk to someone about it, in person."

NO SPEED LIMITS

These are the moments when bank branches shine the brightest. But when new customers come in on their lunch hours to open, say, a standard package of services (e.g., checking, savings, online banking, debit card), they often must fill out repetitive forms, sign a series of documents and go through a 45-minute process of credit checks, identity checks and check ordering. Such an ordeal leaves barely enough time for lunch, let alone a chance for the branch staff to present the new customer with additional services.

For Citizens, that's history. "In the new environment, you can do that in about 12 to 15 minutes, and you may only sign a couple pieces of paper," says Wray. "This just gives our people an opportunity to do that faster and better, and to make our customers happier-and possibly have a little bit more time for discussion."

The bank was able to turn back the clock using a multichannel integration architecture from TouchPoint Solutions (Atlanta), a subsidiary of Fidelity Information Services (Jacksonville, Fla.). Citizens' core banking systems, which are also from Fidelity, run on IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) mainframes, while the branches use Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.) desktop clients.

Speed also drives strategy at the teller line. Even though changing check truncation rules and industry practices promise to lower operating costs at the teller line, Citizens does not plan to be in the forefront of that particular trend.

"We don't believe that the teller's time is best spent taking images of checks," says Wray. "It's early days in terms of truly efficient, capable truncation and imaging out of the branches, and so my strategy is to watch the market and let the really big banks spend the money."

Thus Citizens doesn't use the branch to showcase its technological wizardry, but rather to create sales opportunities. "We're not a bank that strives to be a technological leader, necessarily," says Wray. "We're a bank that strives to make more money by making customers happy."

And it's experienced salespeople, not experienced keypunch operators, who can satisfy customers best. Citizens Bank operates the second-largest network of in-store banks in the country, and takes a sales approach at its supermarket locations. "Our typical employee is not a teller with 20 years' experience in the in-store [branch], it's someone who might have had three years of experience at The Gap," says Wray. "That's a person who ought to be able to sell and open accounts without having to spend years acclimating to a green-screen environment."

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENTS PAY OFF

Therefore, an infrastructure investment in branch renewal leads to dividends in lower training costs, better incentive tracking and more opportunities to cross-sell. But please don't tell Wray that.

"A lot of these things are sort of driven by slogans: 'Oh, is this a cross-sell thing? No, it's a make-your-customer-happy-and-then-they-buy-more thing,'" he says. "We're taking people who already have the sales and service culture, and simply giving them better tools to exercise the skills they already have."

After deploying the TouchPoint solution at the branch platform and teller line, Citizens will extend the system to its approximately 550 agent seats at two call centers.

"It was more compelling to get it into the branches first," says Wray. "We know we want to provide great service and features in the other channels, but the branches have been Citizens' spiritual home."

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