Banks: Games People Play

If you want to see how much technology has changed the relationship between banks and their customers, then take a trip down to the Berkshire Bank branch in Pittsfield, MA. Yes, branch, as in real-world, brick-and-mortar, set-in-stone structure staffed by flesh-and-blood humans.

It’s got cash dispensers, high-quality TV screens, Sony PlayStations and a community room that can accommodate up to 30 people. And while this is the county’s largest bank, at least nine other Berkshire outlets have been similarly renovated recently.

Perhaps the most interesting addition has been teller pods, which essentially remove the time-honored barrier between customer and teller. In this arrangement, the teller stands in front of the computer, right alongside the customer during each transaction. If the teller is busy, there’s a place for the customer to sit while waiting. Cash dispensers situated by the pods enable tellers to stay accurate without actually counting the bills—another anachronism that can be happily disposed of. (It’s interesting to think about how bank robbers see this.)

The rationale behind all these changes, of course, is to personalize and enhance the interaction between corporation and consumer. People generally don’t go to the bank unless they really need to, and the inclination is always to conduct the transaction and depart as quickly as possible. For their part, most branches assume that the customer who can leave the fastest is the happiest.

However, when so many banking transactions are conducted online, it’s surely worth taking a look at alternative models.

In a sense, this approach flips conventional wisdom in other ways too—while consumers use banking apps to stay away from the branch, these banks are using different kinds of technology (teller pods, TVs, gaming consoles) to lure the customer inside the branch, and keep them there. The question is the extent of the value that can accrue from this relationship.

Not every branch has the space to even offer a community space, and customers who come in to, say, make a withdrawal have no real business staying there after they’re done. However, given the number of options now available to every consumer, anything that strengthens the relationship is a good thing.

A long time ago, IKEA created a differentiator by offering space for children to play while their parents shopped for furniture (it had been done before, but probably not to that extent). It’s even easy to surmise that kids clamored to go to the IKEA playpen, which in turn induced their parents to shop.

It’s hard to think of a direct equivalent for the banking industry, but it’s definitely interesting to see what innovative companies will try to lure new business and retain what they have. Might we see good banking combined with fine dining—a restaurant inside the branch, open only during banking hours? How about a sports bar where you get a drink and watch the game while paying your bills? Perhaps laundry services while you wait for a transaction to clear?

Comic speculation aside, innovation is always welcome. The banking industry’s reputation has taken a battering recently. Any approach designed to strengthen the brand and cultivate relationships is a very good thing.

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