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Staying close to their customers Even as banks embrace remote channels, there's nothing like the personal touch

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Preston Pinkett III, CEO of City National Bank.
Preston Pinkett III, CEO of City National Bank. - ()

Later this year United Roosevelt Savings Bank will remodel itself “to enhance our customers’ experience,” according to Kenneth Totten, CEO of the Carteret institution.

The do-over, which is slated to start in April and should be completed by Sept. 1, is one way that banks are working to get closer to customers, even as more of them use mobile phones and other digital channels to do their banking.

“Instead of security glass between tellers and customers, we’re implementing a pod-design that’s more open and informal, which encourages interaction,” Totten said.

United Roosevelt, a single-branch institution, also reinforces relationships by cross-training employees so customers don’t get bounced around.

“A smaller bank can’t support niche employees,” Totten explained. “So most of our tellers can open a new account, while our lending officer can assist in a variety of functions. We know our market and our customers because United Roosevelt employees have been living and breathing in this town since the bank opened in 1914.”

Being local also means the bank can quickly react and tailor products to meet the community’s needs, from affordable housing to a customized business loan, he added. “And since we have a mutual ownership structure, we’re not bound to quarterly result targets set by outsiders and we can take the time to get to know our customers.”

For institutions like Newark-based City National Bank, being part of the local community means establishing and maintaining long-standing relationships, said CEO Preston Pinkett III.

“We spend time in the communities we serve,” he said, referring to the bank’s branches in Newark and Harlem, N.Y. “Many of our employees have been with our bank for many years and have strong relationships with business, residential and commercial customers.”

City National also sponsors financial education and outreach programs in local schools, community organizations and churches, he added.

Look for opportunities

At Jersey City-based Provident Bank, even a simple transaction can open the door to a robust relationship with customers.

“Our employees’ approach to any customer interaction is with the objective of retaining and expanding a customer’s relationship with Provident,” said Betsy Gomez, the bank’s first vice president, director of retail administration. “Understanding and anticipating a customer’s need is the foundation of a long-term relationship; therefore, we would absolutely ask questions and introduce a customer to other products and services.”

But the recommendations are not offered in vacuum, she added. “They are needs-based, which means we would not necessary offer life insurance as an add-on, but rather offer a customer a complimentary insurance review so they can decide if they need additional insurance.”

Provident is also deploying “lobby managers” at branches to offer the opportunity of a discussion as soon as a customer enters a location. The institution is also moving to a less-formal “pod” design approach. Not all of Provident’s 84 branches are geared up for this yet, “but that is something that we take into consideration every time we open or relocate a branch.”

Innovate or perish

Banks have to be creative, according to a report by the global accounting and professional services firm PwC.

“Given their high-fixed cost, branches will need to become dramatically more productive, or significantly less costly,” PwC concluded in “Retail Banking 2020: Evolution or Revolution. “Banks have already reduced staff levels, closed the most uneconomic branches and started experimenting with new branch concepts. Branches will remain, but take many forms, from flagship information, advisory and engagement hubs — offering education, financial advice, full-service capabilities and community offerings — to smart kiosks offering service, sales, cash and video contact with a range of specialists.”

A logical evolution

Amboy Bank’s Dennis Kane is philosophical about the way banks are balancing the digital revolution and face time with customers.

“When ATMs were first introduced, people said they’d replace bank tellers, but both channels are still here,” said Kane, chief marketing officer at the Old Bridge-based institution. “Then mobile and digital channels opened up, and it meant that now there’s some assistance available whenever and wherever a person or business needs it. Individuals can open an account online, business clients can utilize high-speed scanners to process volumes of checks from their office or other location, and just about everyone can do 24-hour banking remotely, but there are also people at a branch you can stop in and see.”

Amboy is also looking to update some branch locations with the easy-access pod layout, Kane said.

“The concept offers more open space, with a greeter at a counter,” he detailed. “A few of our branches already have a ‘Learning Center’ area, with comfortable seating and an iPad that customers can use to learn about our offerings at their leisure.”

He’s quick to add, though, that Amboy doesn’t just use technology in its customer relations build.

“We found out that some of our senior customers — who may be eligible for a ‘freeze’ on their state property taxes — weren’t aware of this money-saving option,” he said. “So we’ve been mailing them information about the state program and have advised them that if it’s too complicated, they can come into a branch where one of our managers will help them fill out the forms at no charge.”

The bank also has a free “Save and Pay” program for homeowners who directly pay their own real estate taxes — typically an older resident who has already paid off their mortgage.

“They can stop by with a copy of their tax bill, and Amboy Bank will develop a simple plan for how much they need to save each month to pay their quarterly property taxes,” Kane said.

Customers have the option of opening a special tax payment account with a two-month cushion to allow for future property tax increases. They can sign a simple form to have the town send their tax bills to Amboy, and on the first of each month the bank automatically transfers the budgeted amount from a linked account to the tax payment account, remitting the correct property tax payment before the quarterly due date.

“It’s part of developing a comprehensive customer relationship,” Kane explained.

Keeping it personal

Institutions like New Brunswick-based Magyar Bank also continue to emphasize personal relationships.

“We find that most customers still prefer to meet in person at least once before opening a new relationship and like to meet the team who will be managing their account,” according to John Reissner, vice president and marketing director at Magyar. “After the relationship is established, technology allows our customers to complete most of their banking transactions through our mobile app or online banking service, but we still make it a point to reach out on occasion with an in-person visit, phone call or even a quick email to make sure the customer’s needs are being met.”

He noted that Magyar Bank has also upgraded its core system technology to provide faster processing time for account openings and other transactions.

“In addition, we offer online loan applications with instant decisions, and are currently reviewing the feasibility of opening deposit accounts online. While there may be some cosmetic changes to the design of the branches, upgrading and improving technology will enable Magyar to provide fast, secure transactions, both online and in-person, making for a more efficient banking experience for our customers.”

The banking staff is “well trained in all aspects of running a branch,” he added. “While we do not utilize the ‘universal banker’ concept at this time, we find that the needs of our customers are met quickly when they walk into one of our branches.”

Technology has changed the speed and methods of communication, “but it has not removed the importance of establishing a strong, personal relationship that is beneficial to both the bank and our customers,” Reissner noted

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