How OceanFirst Bank retained clients by connecting

Joseph Lebel, executive vice president and chief operating officer, says OceanFirst Bank retains customers through high-quality customer care. Photo: Dan Bigelow

At the heart of the retention strategy at OceanFirst Bank in Toms River, N.J., is high-touch customer service coupled with an active staff training program.

By Judith Sears

Name: OceanFirst Bank
Assets: $8 billion
Location: Toms River, N.J.

OceanFirst Bank has created a high-tech, high-touch customer service culture that is nimbly navigating consumers’ changing expectations of service.

This approach has been put to the test in the past four years. The $8 billion-asset community bank in Toms River, N.J., has acquired five banks, giving it a total of 100 branches. OceanFirst Bank subsequently closed 40 branches, 25 related to acquisitions and another 15 related to strategic objectives. Yet, the bank retained 95% of the customers of the closed branches. In today’s competitive business environment, where banks are hungry for depositors, that’s an impressive achievement.

Joseph J. Lebel III, executive vice president and chief operating officer, believes the impact of high customer care and a deep knowledge of customers at the branch level and customer care center are reasons customers stay with the bank.

OceanFirst Bank has developed a systematic approach to identifying which branches to retain. First, bank personnel analyze each location’s deposit size, number of customers and types of transactions. Lebel emphasizes that it’s not just a matter of volume. “We get underneath the number of transactions and look at who’s coming into the bank and why,” he says.

Quick stat


of customers continued to bank with OceanFirst Bank despite its branch closures

Next, bank personnel call longstanding and high-value corporate, municipal and individual clients to discuss possible closures. Bankers question customers about their preferences and concerns. For some customers, it’s a matter of digital education. Other services or products available online may be a solution for those clients.

The close attention of these calls alone often strengthens the client relationship. “Most corporate clients are happy to get a phone call and appreciate that we asked them,” Lebel confirms.

For retail clients, OceanFirst Bank has found that its branch teams are the best source of information. “Our branch staff know their customers so well that they know which ones may not be as comfortable with a closing,” he says. “They will pick up the phone and make the call to discuss it with the customer.”

He adds that more and more customers want to do their banking on their phones or computers. “They want to know a bank is nearby,” he says, “but the days of the bank having to be on every corner are rapidly vanishing.”

Keeping close to customers

Instead, many customers are more concerned about the changes for branch staff. “You’d be surprised at the amount of people who care most about where the people in the closing branch will wind up–are their jobs safe?” Lebel remarks. “They want to know if they’re going to see a familiar face at the alternative branch.”

Recognizing the importance of the personal touch, OceanFirst Bank works with branch teams to decide where they will be reassigned. Some have moved into the community bank’s centralized customer care center, while others relocate to another branch. Either way, the branch is able to have a discussion with customers to let them know where their favorite personal banker is going. “It’s important to us that the client that values face-to-face interaction will be able to continue it at a different location,” Lebel says.

Once the decision has been made to close a branch, OceanFirst Bank mails notification letters 90 days in advance. The bank also puts signs in the branch and invites customers to discuss the change with the branch team.

The community bank’s methodical approach to aggregating branches is built on a foundation of a corporate-wide commitment to excellent customer service. In 2018, OceanFirst Bank relocated and upgraded its customer care center to what were former executive offices. The new facilities, open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week, are on the top floor.

“We gave them the best view in the building and the best space,” Lebel says. “It’s important to us that our customer care folks are in a really good space and environment.”

Taking care of staff, too

The community bank is committed to staff education and has developed its own seven-week Certified Digital Banker program, which all 570 of its retail employees have taken. In both the classroom and online, the course teaches them about OceanFirst Bank’s digital offerings as well as the latest industry developments, such as payment apps.

Lebel says increased expertise in digital solutions is necessary to deliver good customer service. “It’s just as likely today to have a customer call about something totally unrelated to the bank,” he adds. “They’ll say, ‘I have a Venmo account and am not getting a transaction. Can you help?’ In the old days, banks would say ‘That’s Venmo’s problem.’ But the customer looks at that account as linked to their bank. We need to be able to help.”

Commensurate with more front-line responsibilities, the bank adopted a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2017. It was the first New Jersey bank to do so. “We thought it was important because we’re asking a variety of employees to do more and different things than what the typical retail bank has done in the past,” he says. “We’re focused on conversations that educate the customer and talking about their alternatives.”

The bank intends to go forward by meeting both the increasing array of digital solutions and the expectations of customers who prefer face-to-face service. Lebel adds: “We’re very focused on where we can make the client’s life easier.”

Judith Sears is a writer in Colorado.