The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the decline of traffic in most banks’ retail branches, leading many organizations to reexamine the cost of their branch services and the ultimate viability of their branch-based services. Bank boards and executive teams must address the changing operating risks in today’s retail banking environment and assess the potential strategic risks of both action and inaction.
Speculation about the impending death of branch banking is nothing new: industry observers have debated the topic for years. As customers have become more comfortable with online banking, banks experienced a sizeable drop in in-person transactions. Regulatory changes, social trends and the growth of fintech alternatives exacerbated this development, leading many banks to cut back or centralize various branch-based activities. Between June 2010 and year-end 2020, branch offices have decreased by more than 16,000, or 16.7%, according to a Crowe analysis of report from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The pandemic also introduced important new challenges. Many banks had already shifted the focus in their branches, but greater consumer acceptance of remote and self-service options clouded the role of the branch even further. At the same time, pandemic relief programs produced a wave of liquidity, which hid or delayed the recognition of fundamental challenges many bankers expect to face: finding new ways to continue growing their core deposits at an acceptable cost.
So far, banks’ responses to these challenges have varied. Some banks — both large and small — have accelerated their branch closure plans. Others have notified regulators that they do not plan to reopen branches shuttered during lockdowns. But some banks actually are adding new offices as they reconfigure their retail banking strategies. What is the underlying strategic thinking when it comes to brick and mortar locations?
Developing and Executing an Effective Strategy
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, of course. Closing a majority of branches and becoming a digital-only organization is simply not appropriate for most banks. Nevertheless, many aspects of the physical model require innovation. Directors and executive teams can take several steps to successfully modernize their retail banking strategies.
- Rethink branch cost and performance metrics. Banks use a variety of tools to attract deposits, sell products and build relationships, which means conventional performance metrics such as accounts or transactions per employee, cost per transaction or teller transaction times often are inadequate measurements.
A branch’s contribution also includes the visibility it provides as a billboard for the bank, access to and support for the specialized products and services it can deliver and the role it plays in establishing a community presence. Management teams need to develop tools to determine and measure the value of such contributions to the bank and its product lines, as well as their associated costs. Branches are long-term investments that require longer-term planning strategies and tactics.
- Identify customer expectations. One factor contributing to the decline in foot traffic is what customers experience when they visit a branch. Although branch greeters can establish a welcoming atmosphere, such encounters often succeed only in a nice greeting — not necessarily in service.
Because customers can perform most banking business online, banks must ascertain why customers are visiting the branch — and then focus on meeting those needs. Ultimately, customers must leave the branch feeling fulfilled, having accomplished a transaction or task that would have been more difficult outside the branch.
- Execute a coordinated digital strategy. Having a digital strategy means more than updating the bank’s website, streamlining its mobile banking interface or even partnering with a fintech to offer new digital products. Such catch-up activities might be necessary, but they no longer set a bank apart in today’s digital landscape or improve profitability and growth.
Beyond technology, banks should consider how their digital strategy and brand identity align and how that identity ties back to customers’ expectations. Traditionally, banks’ brand identities were linked to a specific geographic location or niche audiences, but brand identity also can reflect other communities or affinity groups or a particular service or product at which the bank is especially adept. This identity should be projected consistently throughout the customer experience, both digitally and in person.
Although most banks should not abandon their branches altogether, many will need to reevaluate their market approaches, compare opportunities for improved earnings performance and consider reimagining their value proposition for in-person services. Strategies will vary from one organization to the next, but those that succeed will share certain critical attributes — including a willingness to question conventional thinking and redeploy resources without hesitation.