Could this be the future of banking? No lineups dictated by ropes, no teller counters creating a physical barrier between you and your money, the managers in plain sight instead of hiding in the back.
Then imagine this service: A smiling concierge greets you, a la Gap, to ask what you need and takes you to the "dream centre" - a lounge equipped with comfy seating, the Internet, coffee and magazines - to wait while your information is entered into a queuing system for one of the branch's "personal banking specialists."
The first available representative greets you by name, takes you to the banking hall - with play areas built into the desk spaces for kids - and sits beside you. If a bank colleague needs to be called in, the space can accommodate so there's no need to move or reschedule. And should you want to hold a business or social event in the bank's "community room," it's available free to customers.
ATB Financial unveiled this innovative prototype in June, 2009, on 17th Avenue in Calgary. It's the largest of three branches that were designed by Karo Group, a brand and communication design firm.
Alberta-based ATB, which opened its first treasury branch in Rocky Mountain House in 1938 and now has 165 branches, wanted to reverse the trend of banks closing branches and pushing customers online. ATB chose instead to engage customers by getting them to stay longer. At the same time, managers also wanted to reduce employee turnover and so offered flexible workspaces, video games in the staff room and increased communication between younger and senior managers.
"The design elements that had the most impact were focused around personal attention, comfort and convenience," says Chris Bedford, Karo Group's president and chief executive officer. "The way in which you're greeted when you come in matters, as does the fact that you can be seated rather than being forced to stand in a line, which if you think about it is one of the unfriendliest things you can do to someone, especially if you're a little stressed about the financial circumstances that brought you into the bank. It's the notion of welcoming people and making them feel special that's important."
The increased conversations between customers and employees have led to new business, says Michael Baker, ATB's executive vice-president of retail financial services. While construction costs were 20 per cent higher at the prototype, and the operating costs were "marginally" higher, the "financial results were substantially better," Mr. Baker said. Loans and deposits at the branch grew by 109 per cent in the first eight months of its fiscal year.
He also believes the project will have an impact on retail banking as a whole. "We've broken some of the myths, such as the need to have barriers," says Mr. Baker. "From a security perspective, many banks feel they need certain barriers between them and the customer around cash handling. I think people will feel more welcome and comfortable in our environment."
Some experts question whether customers want to spend more time hanging out at their bank, even if it does have comfy chairs.
There is "a crying need for personalized service for people who need financial advice or retirement planning - the kind of thing you can't do on the computer, says Cam di Prata, executive vice-president and managing director/head of corporate and investment banking for National Bank Financial.
But the majority of people want banking to take up as little time as possible, he says. "The banks have recognized that some part of their market doesn't need a day-to-day branch person and that part of the market loves to do their banking Saturday mornings on their computer," says Mr. di Prata.
He also thinks the prototype's concierge service could be a bit costly, not something that could be done at every branch.
According to a two-month study by ATB to measure the impact of its redesign, 87 per cent of customers reacted positively and indicated they would refer ATB to others. Surprising, it was the customers younger than 30 who were most likely to recommend the bank.
Another surprise was the speed of service. Customers expected that the personalized approach would take longer than the old style, but that hasn't been the case. The ATB survey indicated that 100 per cent of respondents judged their wait time as "reasonable."
Some customers, however, felt disoriented when they entered the bank and didn't find the usual roped-off lineup, and the concierge wasn't available immediately to help them.
But mistakes are just part of the learning process, says the Karo Group's Mr. Bedford. "It's a test-and-learn environment. We're talking about setting the stage and the culture for people to have some strategic risk. It's okay if a few things don't work out entirely as planned."