This past decade has been a wake-up call for retail branch banking. We’ve seen dwindling branch traffic and declining traditional transaction volumes coupled with an increase in customer engagement across digital channels and a rise in technical demands on employees not equipped to handle them. It’s been a C-Suite debate, HR struggle and powerful opportunity all-in-one.

In the last few years, as a response to this need for “branch transformation,” banks began the skills scramble. The dance of defining new roles that would account for this well-known, but initially under appreciated shift in the way people bank. In financial companies across the globe, conversations about the future retail employee have ranged from “better cross training” to “hiring wireless store experts.” It’s a confusing evolution for employees, managers, and decision makers alike.

So, who is this new “Universal Banker” and what are we asking of her or him?
MacGyver: Universal Banker

I can handle anything thrown at me. I’ve been cross-trained.

…to be MacGyver, essentially.

To take a somewhat disjointed set of items, know how to package them together and be able to eloquently explain why it all makes sense. To be one part operations, one part sales, one part lender, one part technical support, one part online/mobile guru. That’s at least 5 parts for those keeping count.

It sounds like a banking superhero. But in many ways, these types of bankers have existed for a long time and often risen to the top of their organizations. They were just sales-savvy commercial and personal bankers. Have we simply put a label on something that really doesn’t change the inherent flaws in hiring financial talent today?

Maybe. But, I like the concept of a more well-rounded branch employee. Roles were a bit too limiting in banking and it is nice to see a bit more expansive retail role. There will still be good universal bankers and not as good universal bankers. And they will be rewarded accordingly for their performance like any other organization.

What’s In A Name?

Banks are rapidly mimicking one another’s descriptions of what this “jack of all trades” job entails. U.S. Bank implemented a job called a “Universal Banker” years ago, and it feels like a slightly more sales-oriented teller/CSR combination. Salaries for these universal bankers fall between $27,000 to $40,000, comparable to many in-branch employees positions today. Is that really raising the bar? Or just renaming it?

River Valley Bank, a small community bank in Wisconsin, has a Universal Banker position alongside Bank Manager and Customer Service Representative positions for their branches. Their Universal Banker is described as an “Ambassador” for the customer who prefers “face-to-face interaction” with the bank. Additionally the job describes a universal banker as someone who will…

…educate customers about River Valley Banks’ sales and service delivery options and refer the appropriate products and services matching the customer needs. This position will also refer customers to the appropriate source or channel to address their need.

Their other duties include processing transactions, keeping records of money, opening new accounts, customer service, cross-selling, generating new business, and quality assurance.

And important to note: the job has “no supervisory responsibilities.”

So, our do-it-all-rouge-super-teller-sales-and-service-champion who makes $30,000 a year is this new Universal Banker? Frankly, yes. And that may lead to a struggle with identity, job description, and rewarding employees in the short term. But, those challenges are manageable and important lessons in new financial sales models will emerge.

It’s All About Hiring

Defining the characteristics of this new retail banking employee’s job is a great first step. But the banks that win in this new era, will win with talent. And unorthodox talent at that.  No longer does banking have to be an incestuous pool of revolving talent moving  to and fro competitor banks. It’s time to put the retail back into retail banking. You’ll need to ask yourself:

  • Is this a retraining exercise? Tellers turning into Universal Bankers through new training programs? PNC is taking this approach methodically over the next five years.
  • Is this a talent acquisition program? Getting new, more accustomed service-to-sales-oriented retail employees from big box retail, wireless, or technology stores?
  • Is this an additive position and an evolution? Many banks are fearful of a full brick-and-mortar transformation. What does a stepped approach look like? How will the blurriness between Universal Banker, Teller, Customer Service Representative, and/or Branch Manager work in different markets?

More than anything, banks should not fear hiring the no-experience employee. After all, this is new; why not bring in fresh minds? This new position is about personality, a thirst for knowledge, and drive. No different than many sales positions across industries. In the future, this position may be the fast-track to new sales management structures that could emerge in banking over the next 10 years. The universe seems large looming for universal bankers.

The Branch Renaissance is Coming

It may take 5 years, 10 years, maybe 15 years, but brick-and-mortar retail banking will experience a renaissance. It might be the epicenter of technical troubleshooting for digital banking customers. It might be the identity theft and fraud prevention conversation that pulls people back into this setting. Or it might be innovations into more complex financial product packages and an economic climate that heighten the need for an “everyman’s financial advisor.” Whatever the reason, branches are transforming and the rate of closures will slow. What will be left are highly complex, multi-functional, technically adept retail settings and community business centers. Stay tuned.