Universal Banker, Universal Success?

Changes in customer behavior are driving the adoption of the universal banker model. But it’s crucial to evaluate whether it’s the right choice for your community bank.

By Beth Mattson-Teig

The universal banker has been touted as the fastest-growing position in banking. Yet the multitasking role is far from new.

The universal banker model has existed in some shape or form for more than two decades. And while the name tag may say Universal Banker, Personal Banker or Client Services Representative, they all offer customers a personalized, one-stop shopping experience. The model is gaining momentum as everyday transactions shift to digital channels, which is changing customers’ reasons for branch visits.

“A lot of things are done online. So, when you do something in a physical location, your expectations are that it will be more experiential,” says Sean Keathley, president of Adrenaline, an experience design agency. “If a location isn’t experiential, you’re going to opt to do it somewhere else.”

Since 1992, the volume of branch transactions has dropped by more than 45 percent, and that activity continues to decline by a rate of 6 percent to 7 percent each year, according to a 2016 white paper published by Adrenaline.

sq. ft. smaller

Average size of a universal banker model bank versus a traditional bank

The universal banker model comes with a number of advantages, including enhanced efficiency and profitability. But the primary reason to implement the model is to set a bank apart from its competitors, says Kevin Blair, president and CEO of NewGround, a design-build firm that specializes in creating experiential spaces for financial institutions. “Consumers are demanding a different relationship with their banks, which, among other changes, includes a stronger front line to manage the complete relationship needs,” he says. NewGround has been designing bank branches that incorporate the universal banker model since 1996.

Broader skill sets, better service
Supporters of the universal banker model believe it provides a better client experience, with more opportunities to foster relationships that increase customers’ use of products and services. Bank employees also like the model because it offers positions that are more fulfilling and pay better. Universal bankers are typically paid about 35 percent more than a traditional teller, according to Adrenaline. Employees also like how the model encompasses many aspects of banking, says Theresa Wiese, managing director of compliance and risk management at First Business, a $1.8 billion financial services company headquartered in Madison, Wis. “They are not siloed into just being a teller or just new accounts or just research,” she says, which tends to reduce employee turnover and increase longevity.

Banks can offset the higher salaries with savings from increased efficiencies. According to NewGround, the universal banker model saves the equivalent of two full-time employees per branch compared with the traditional model. Branches that are designed to accommodate the model also are typically about 500 to 600 square feet smaller, reaping savings in operations and fixed-asset investment, notes Blair.


Average universal banker income versus teller income

Implementing the model
The biggest challenge is training, retaining and hiring universal bankers. On average, Adrenaline has seen a 33 percent attrition rate when transforming an organization from a transaction-oriented teller environment to a universal banker model due to staff who don’t want that job or are not comfortable with it.

When Texas First Bank, based in Texas’s Gulf Coast, decided to introduce the universal banker model in 2013, management spoke with each retail employee one on one.

Training for universal bankers

Growing numbers of community banks are moving to the universal banker model. If your bank is making the leap, ICBA offers a Universal Banker certificate program through Community Banker University. This comprehensive online course is aimed at current and prospective frontline employees. Topics include building customer relationships, new deposit account regulations, sales strategies and credit and debit cards. Individual bankers or full institutions can sign up for the 20-hour course at icba.org/education.

“I was surprised that the response that I got for the most part was excitement. They saw this as an opportunity to learn something new and move up in the company,” says Robin McDougald, senior vice president and retail manager at the $1 billion-asset community bank. One-on-one meetings also allowed people to ask questions and get comfortable with the idea, she adds.

Next, Texas First Bank held training sessions and created a step-by-step guide for its employees to take back to their individual banking center or access online. “That reference guide helped us tremendously in getting our staff comfortable once they left training,” says McDougald.

Some of the best advice is to be patient, she adds. It took Texas First Bank three years to fully cross-train its staff as universal bankers, and the program continues to evolve. Universal bankers are not yet assisting customers with consumer loan applications, but the community bank does hope to add that in the future.

Branch makeovers
Adopting the universal banker model often requires making at least minor modifications to branch locations. The biggest change to the physical location is “untethering” those universal bankers, says Keathley. Community banks don’t want their universal bankers behind a teller line or in an office tied to a personal computer. There is much more emphasis on using tablets that allow bankers to conduct transactions wherever they are in the bank. Some of the best practices use a variety of seating types within the branch, such as a café-style lounge where people can be comfortable whether they are there for five minutes or 30.

“I was surprised that the response that I got for the most part was excitement. [Employees] saw this as an opportunity to learn something new and move up in the company.”
—Robin McDougald,
Texas First Bank

“The environment has to be much, much more consultative versus transaction oriented,” Keathley says.
First Business has used the universal banker model since its inception in 1990 with staff that it refers to as client services associates (CSAs). The bank does not have traditional teller lines. Instead, incoming clients are greeted by the receptionist or a CSA and directed to a personal banker. There are typically about two to four CSAs at each location, and each CSA desk has a cash recycler machine. The receptionist also is able to take deposits, which helps free up CSAs for other business, notes Wiese.

There is no single solution to rethinking bank design to better fit the universal banker model. Texas First Bank still uses a traditional banking setup with a teller line. Each of its 21 banking centers is staffed with three to four universal bankers, and each location now has a new account desk that is staffed by a universal banker on a rotating basis. McDougald admits that the bank is still on a learning curve. For example, it plans to test cash recyclers later this year to see if it might better ease staff who are transitioning into universal banker roles.

“In working through these tiny road bumps in the process,” she says, “we have really seen the benefit to allowing an employee to help a customer from the time they walk in to open an account or process a transaction.”

Location, location, location

Introducing the universal banker model can work at both existing and new branch locations and across all types of urban, suburban and rural settings. However, community banks are hesitant to introduce the model into high-traffic locations with a large volume of teller transactions, such as taking deposits and cashing checks. “One of the premium concerns is that you don’t want to have higher-paid universal bankers doing mundane tasks and doing transactions all day,” says Sean Keathley, president of Adrenaline, an experience design agency.

The universal banker model tends to be more efficient in a low-traffic environment, because employees are more versatile and the bank can do a better job of servicing clients with fewer people, Keathley says. Some higher-traffic locations do use the universal banker model, because employees with the right technology, skills and knowledge can be much more efficient with transactions and still interact with customers and grow those relationships, he adds.

Beth Mattson-Teig is a writer in Minnesota.