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We Go Together: Combining Tech and In-Person Banking in the NeighborHub

By Nicole Sherma, Senior Vice President and Greater Puget Sound Market Region Manager, Columbia Bank

Nicole Sherma, Senior Vice President and Greater Puget Sound Market Region Manager, Columbia Bank

For a large and growing share of the population, technology permeates nearly all aspects of our daily lives. We connect with work via smartphones. We shop online. We listen to podcasts while exercising.

Tech influences our conversations, our exposure to sports and the arts, our abilities to navigate rush-hour traffic – you name it. So, for those us of in banking, we are not surprised to see the steady march of customers to online accounts, credit applications, wealth management, and nearly all things financial services.

We anticipated it. We prepared for it. And we are continually executing on new and better tech-driven services for our clients.

Connection first, transaction second.

In an increasingly complex and competitive world, clients now as much as ever before rely on us for guidance and advice, for the expertise needed to make educated decisions about everything from short-term loans to retirement investing that could span decades. Often, we find, people like to meet in person to carefully examine their options with a banking expert at their side. As such, while we may need fewer locations, bank branches remain essential and we expect they will for years to come.

But they must be designed with teams much different than just a few years ago. And banking entities must brace themselves to continually tweak and upgrade layouts and features to stay abreast of advancing technology and clients’ evolving preferences.

Traditional branch designs emphasized conventional teller setups. But these can be physical impediments to the connections that build the relationships at the core of our work.  As the nature of traffic in branches continues to evolve, the emphasis on the teller station as the paramount point of visual focus must evolve as well.

Modern branches expose clients to a variety of available services and encourages people to explore and interact with a myriad of solutions. Products are on display, for example, and services are explained via video monitors. Team members are not stuck behind teller stations. They move about an open space and personally greet engage with clients. They inquire about, first, clients’ immediate needs and, second, pursue conversations to explore longer-term ways the bank could help meet their financial goals.

A client who enters this kind of banking space quickly sees the depth of services provided and finds it easy to benefit from team members’ knowledge.

Transaction spaces should be designed to maximize efficiency and security while minimizing impact of the client’s journey through the branch. Branch team members should only move to a space where transactions can be conducted when the time is right.

Importantly, an innovative kind of relationship banker replaces traditional roles in this environment. These team members are equally skilled in helping a client apply for a loan, open an account or set up online services. They boast expertise in all aspects of our solutions, allowing them to recommend, troubleshoot and answer detailed questions about digital services as well as customary products. After all, we are connecting tech with high-touch, personal service.

All team members working in the branch also are personally invested in the neighborhood. They are familiar with local industries, businesses, culture and, of course, the client portfolio. They know the local vibe as well as the local haunts.

A strategy to proactively invite neighbors into our space and share our services with them is also essential. New bank locations should be flexible enough to allow for business workshops, community gatherings and non-profit seminars.

This is already happening – and working. In 2018, for instance, we at Columbia Bank (Nasdaq: COLB) opened such as space in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. What we’ve dubbed NeighborHub is a totally new branch built to unite retail banking with tech.

NeighborHub is equipped with tablets, cash recyclers and large video screens to review products and services. The team is prepared to provide a range of financial services – loans, investments, financial planning, insurance and more – and it features open, flexible spaces to encourage people to engage with bankers and financial solutions.

It is a full-service banking center, but it is also much more. It is utilized for everything from filming podcasts, to seminars on homeownership to small business workshops. The people and organizations of Ballard can reserve space for their own events, meet with their clients or drop in and get some work done. We have all the tools they need, including WiFi, meeting space and refreshments.

It also is a place for neighborhood entertainment events, from concerts and art shows to beer and wine tastings. This is a space that works at the intersection of residents’ financial lives and the community in which they live.

It is also smart business: New account openings already are on par with other branches, and we are experiencing substantial success pairing digital banking initiatives with the NeighborHub to attract millennials. Plans are in motion to expand this concept.

This is the new world of branch banking. Evolution is key. We must make necessary leaps to ensure we can always meet our customers where they choose – and be fully prepared to identify and address their needs with both the best technology and the most inviting in-person experience.

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