While many banks may be embracing new technologies, like signing loan docs with a finger or giving customers remote deposit abilities, the community bank sector faces a dilemma – how do so and keep a “personal touch” relationship with customers.
“For us, the key to community banking is understanding our customers. That requires a heavier touch than a big bank,” said Bank of Marin Chief Information Officer James Burke, who worked 26 years at giant Bank of America and also did stints at Charles Schwab and Visa before coming to Bank of Marin five years ago.
That touch, Burke explained, means physically meeting and working with customers as much as possible. And that affects the bank’s thinking about technological changes.
“The way we think about technology here is not what’s old and what’s new,” Burke said. “It’s making every channel available to every customer. It’s not like branches are going to go away because we have mobile banking. We see our job to provide as many functions as possible.”
For Bank of Marin’s business customers, that means many of them can deposit checks remotely, either by a smartphone app for a few checks or using a faster “remote deposit capture” scanner for big batches,
If they prefer an old school method, they can come by the night deposit box at the branch and put their checks through the slot, or walk into a branch and work with a human teller who might just recognize them.
Tony Hildesheim, CIO at Redwood Credit Union, said that personal focus on what customers, who are also members, want is even more essential for credit unions.
“We’re a cooperative; every decision we make is based on what’s best for the member,” Hildesheim said.
That personal touch is easiest to achieve via in person interaction in branches, he said. A big part of his job is to figure out how to maintain it in the more remote interactions that technology allows now and will allow in the next few years.
Bank branches, which permit that personal touch, will still exist in five years, said Burke, though they’ll likely be smaller places than in the past. That shrinking trend, which started years ago, will continue.
Five years ago, a typical Bank of Marin branch was about 3,500 square feet, said Burke, who also has facilities responsibilities as part of his job. Those larger branches were “very transaction oriented,” he said, meaning customers came in, stood in a roped off line, and made a deposit or withdrawal with a teller. Today, the average size of Bank of Marin’s 23 branches is nearer 2,000 square feet.
And the typical branch staff of five or so employees there are required to know a wider variety of things than in the past. People come to a branch more for customer support or service issues than just to move money around, and he expects that trend to continue.
That means branch staff have to be trained differently, as there are fewer of them to do all the things required.
“A smaller number of people who have to know more about everything,” Burke said. “We really have to upgrade the knowledge base of our employees.”
But branches aren’t likely to shrink too much more than they have already, either in size or in staff, he said. Bank of Marin has one 1,600-square-foot branch that feels “pretty tight,” and he can’t see one ever being much smaller, or employing fewer than at least four or five people.