Credit Union Branch Strategies in the Experience Era


According to Accenture, we are entering the Experience Era, punctuated by the delivery of more personalized and adaptive customer experiences powered by human-machine collaboration. This comes as no surprise given that Uber, Amazon, Netflix and the like have conditioned consumers to expect tailored, on-demand and digitally integrated service. The manifestation of such “experience” is obvious in many industries, but begs clarification in the credit union industry to balance the convenience and care needs of members.

Branch Growth and Staffing

Research by Codigo reveals that nearly half (48%) of all banks and credit unions in the U.S. have plans to add branches in the coming year. According to J.D. Power, 71 percent of bank customers visited a branch 14 times on average in the last year – indicating that even in the digital age, members value human engagement.

Not all news is good news, though. Branch traffic has been falling steadily. According to CACI, consumer visits to retail branches are set to drop 36 percent by 2022, resulting partly from increased activity though digital channels. More than half of the top 100 U.S. banks reduced their footprint by more than 50 percent over the past five years, according to McKinsey.

The recent BB&T and SunTrust merger highlights this trend. Bank executives evaluated the new combined footprints post-merger and strategically closed more than 700 duplicate branches that were within two miles of each other.

To Branch or Not to Branch

Even though the big banks are consolidating branches, they are still raking in deposits at a disproportionate level. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo alone received nearly 50 percent of new deposit account openings last year, despite only having a quarter (24%) of the branches. In contrast, regional and community banks make up 50 percent of branches in the U.S., but took in less than a quarter (20%) of deposit growth over the last three years combined.

A hypothesis from Accenture is that investment and success in digital are key differentiators between the two groups. But digital alone won’t cut it for credit unions. Clearly it may level the playing field, but it doesn’t give them an edge. Despite countervailing indicators, the reality is that there is a place for both digital and branches.

Celent and Accenture research agrees that while consumers love digital for routine banking transactions, when it comes to key financial moments, individuals of all ages and demographics prefer in-person interactions with a credit union brand they trust. With twice as many branches as larger institutions, community institutions have an opportunity to leverage their home court advantage to design a truly differentiating branch experience – expanding the possibility for them to capture a larger piece of the deposit pie.

Re-evaluate your Real Estate

The future for credit unions lies in transforming their traditional branches into “Experience Stores,” as coined by Accenture, focused on merging the best of human and digital.

As the purpose of the branch shifts from addressing members’ transactional needs to becoming a place to share advice, provide wealth consultation and help solve more complex issues, the physical requirements for branch footprints evolve as well. With less foot traffic generated for routine transactions, square footage can be reduced and allocated differently.

Credit unions are looking to make their services more accessible by providing social spaces within their location for the community and local businesses to meet and engage. Conference rooms can be offered as co-working space and some branch real estate can be made available for business meetings.

Blended retail is another form of space sharing that is gaining popularity – particularly amongst the java loving community. Pinnacle Financial Partners, a regional financial institution headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., converted two-thirds of its branch and allocated one of its drive-through lanes to a Starbucks, and has reported a huge leap in branch traffic since doing so.

Such co-locating with popular coffee and sandwich shops extends convenience to the community, facilitates more frequent interactions with members, and provides exposure to potential members – with the added bonus of reducing real estate costs.

Human-Machine Collaboration

Experience Stores also integrate digital tools to facilitate self-guided learning and digitally empowered Genius Bar-style conversations with knowledgeable branch employees. As a result of the digital-first experience model, branches become the destination for members who specifically need human support, per Accenture, tasking frontline staff to combine technology with empathy in order to handle complex and emotive conversations and requests.

To deliver a truly valued experience, credit unions should leverage technology to eliminate any friction, improve insight and increase the quality of advice and services. For example, member John Smith is able to book an in-person appointment with a credit union employee though his online banking portal. When John gets to the branch, his member service executive is already prepared with background enriched by spend data, credit bureau data and a history of keep-in-touch interactions with John. More than just greeting John by name, the member service executive is equipped with the appropriate content to address his immediate need and introduce valuable next steps in areas such as investments or debt consolidation.

The technology exists to make this scenario a reality. Robust CRM platforms can integrate all systems in a bi-directional member 360 understanding to improve the member journey. The automation inherent in such platforms simplifies work and takes over routine tasks so employees are free to devote more time to helping members like John with higher-level service requests.

Retail Mindset

As credit unions look to evolve their branch strategy in the Experience Era, they should strive to bring value to digital-initiated journeys as a means to deliver the personalized, on-demand experiences members are looking for.

Branches should consider adopting a retail environment mentality, focused on delivering tailored product advice and individualized coaching. Nearly everything can be bought online today, and many things are. Yet the same consumers who buy 12 million products on Amazon each year also go into stores to get help from a knowledgeable sales associate, and to touch and try products.

The same holds true in banking. Regional credit unions must invest in digital to stay relevant. They can maximize their home court advantage by curating customized, adaptive branch strategies to facilitate stellar member experiences, if they so choose.  

Bringing it all Together

The essence of the Experience Era shift is one from standardization to customization. The days of uniform branch footprints are behind us. Let the real estate fit the purpose, let the technology aid the interaction, and let each conversation be as unique as the individuals involved.

Joe Salesky is CEO of CRMNEXT, the leading global CRM solution provider in financial services. For more information, please visit

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