A decade ago, the grand opening of a tellerless branch on April Fools’ Day might have been viewed as a hoax, but the new banking model simply reflects a business reality at GFA Federal Credit Union ($421.0M, Gardner, MA), where members conduct roughly 86% of their transactions electronically.
“GFA members just aren’t walking into branches as much as they used to,” says Linda Carmichael, senior vice president for member resources and technology. “And when they do, they’re looking for information.”
That change in member behavior led GFA to rethink the branch concept at its ninth, newest location in Leominster, MA, which opened this year. Dubbed a “futuristic branch” by a local newspaper, the new model is noteworthy for not only how it functions today but also how it plans to incorporate emerging technology in the future.
“We are laying the foundation for what we expect future branches to look like,” Carmichael says. At the same time, the new branch concept also helps advance the goals of a rebranding effort launched last year to promote the credit union’s full menu of financial services.
Automation With A Personal Touch
The Leominster branch has no teller windows, teller lines, cash drawers, or vaults. Instead, it has four separate counters spread loosely around an open area off of which are three glass-walled spaces for private consultation. Employees greet members as they walk into the branch and inquire about the visit’s purpose. Employees then either serve the member at a counter or direct the member to one of the offices for further assistance from the employee or a senior staff member. This method of spreading business around to offices or counters keeps customer lines from forming.
The counters are equipped with a computer, eSigning devices, and a cash-recycling machine that two employees can use simultaneously. The machine is housed beneath the counter and serves as a teller's ATM for cash transactions, both deposits and withdrawals, rendering cash drawers and vaults obsolete. And instead of requiring a teller to count money two or three times for accuracy, the machine counts and efficiently dispenses bills and coins in any denominations a member requests. Meanwhile, the employee is free to learn more about the member and recommend other financial services that GFA offers.
Both the layout and technology allow employees to work at any counter or machine, a design that encourages efficient service.
“With a traditional teller window, the teller is assigned a cash drawer that only that person has access to, but anyone can step up and work with that recycler,” Carmichael says. “It’s not assigned to a specific employee.”
Like most credit unions, GFA has been shrinking its retail space, and at approximately 2,700 square feet, the Leominster branch is comparable in size to other leaner branches the credit union has opened in recent years. But the new banking model uses the floor space more efficiently. By replacing teller windows with counters, those workstations can handle multiple functions, from cash transactions to loan applications, even new accounts.
A Shift Toward Sales
In one sense, the Leominster branch is just the physical environment supporting the flexible staffing strategies many credit unions have embarked upon. Although GFA lacks universal employees, it has replaced the traditional teller with member service associates who are trained to handle a broader repertoire of services, including loan applications. The branch is staffed with three or four associates, an assistant manager, and manager.
The Leominster locale will test additional technologies that, if successful, the credit union will incorporate at other branches. For instance, GFA plans to introduce tablets to its employees at the Leominster branch first but is working on the infrastructure for securing the data. Eventually, the new branch will feature video-conferencing for consultations that require a staff member with certain expertise.
“When a member wants to speak with a commercial lender, we don’t need to have that staff person in the building,” Carmichael says. “We can use video-conferencing at any time without the member having to make an appointment or visit another branch.”
Most importantly, the new model supports a shift in the branch’s role from handling transactions to driving sales of the credit union’s other services. In GFA’s case, that new role works in tandem with its rebranding campaign. GFA’s new slogan is “welcome to better banking.” The new brand highlights the credit union’s four categories of financial services — personal banking, business banking, investments, and insurance — designating each one with a separate color and icon. Every branch, not just Leominster, has been made over with the new brand colors and a feature wall of four images that represent GFA's full menu of services, which member associates are trained to discuss. The new brand, like the new branch, “is designed to show that we offer a full suite of solutions for all of life’s changing events,” says GFA’s marketing director Lisa Lastella.