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Finding a Happy Medium

August 9, 2010

As a frequent traveler, I pride myself on the ability to navigate the labyrinth of airport terminals with relative ease.  I know where to park, how to pack a carry on, where to find the cheapest newspaper, and where to go for the strongest cup of coffee.  Removing my laptop and shoes as I pass through security has become instinctual; without being prompted I have two plastic bins neatly filled with personal items as I seamlessly pass through the metal detectors.  Having sampled my fair share of airlines, I have also had the occasion to compare the way different industry players handle the registration or check-in process.  For some, check-in is a nuisance, an unavoidable step in the process.  For others, check-in is an interesting marriage of technology and customer service that communicates corporate values while offering unique opportunities to sell additional services.

Thinking through the airport experience, I am struck by the parallels that can be drawn to our business; financial services.  While not identical, there are similarities between the two environments that are interesting to note.  Like airline passengers, many of the individuals that enter bank or credit union branches are there simply to complete a transaction and leave.  Comparatively, in the U.S. at least, customers have to wait in line to work with a teller rather than being given the option to take their transaction to a self-service kiosk.  As financial institutions continue to invest in alternate (non-branch) delivery channels aimed at promoting growth at a lower cost, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the branch as a more cost-effective channel.

The most successful U.S. airlines manage to find the appropriate blend between technology and human interaction.  While a majority of the time I am looking to check in, print a boarding pass, and get to the nearest coffee shop, there are occasions when I can be tempted to upgrade to first class or purchase additional services.  Marrying technology with trained facilitators, airlines are able to drive cost out of their model while still encouraging revenue-generating sales behaviors.  The same opportunities exist for banks and credit unions in the United States today.

For many years, industry experts have maintained that brick-and-mortar branches are going to be replaced by newly designed, technology-empowered branches.  Rather than relying upon manpower to process transactions by manually counting cash and processing checks, self-service technology enables branch staff to focus on just managing workflows while being freed to engage in sales behaviors.  Finding a happy medium between manpower and technology, financial institutions can answer the call to provide value-added services to their clients at the branch level while driving cost out of an expensive channel.  With the self-service model gaining acceptance in Europe and Asia, it is likely that the United States is next to adopt this strategy.  The question that remains is clear: what are you doing to meet the financial needs of a changing, modern marketplace?

~Jeff Hauser

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