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Building a Digital Banking Strategy From the Front Line Up: An Interview with CarrieAnne Cormier

CarrieAnne Cormier has worked at Avidia, a $1.2B community bank outside of Boston, for 10 years. Now serving as the Head of Retail Operations and Strategy, she has helped Avidia work with vendors to lead the transition to digital — launching online account opening in 2008, mobile in 2009, remote deposit in 2012, P2P payments in 2013, and cardless cash this year.

In this interview we talk about how the transition to digital has affected various job roles in the banking industry.

What large-scale trends have you noticed as banks make the transition to digital?

I’ve noticed that that the changes are coming more and more quickly. In the past, we might have waited years between partnering with a new vendor and launching a product, but now we are doing one thing after another — often within the same year. I think this trend toward moving faster will continue in the years to come.

Where do you think the pressure to change quickly is coming from?

It’s coming from consumer expectations across the entire retail industry — not just banking. I look at Zappos, where you can buy a pair of shoes and get them delivered to your house tomorrow, along with recommendations on handbags you might like. A fast, personalized experience like that puts pressure on the banking industry to keep up.

What would a Zappos-like experience in banking look like?

It would start by putting the user first. Onboarding would be simple and streamlined, help would be instantly available every step of the way, and there would be flexibility in account structures — allowing users to instantly compartmentalize their money however they saw fit, all from the same account. The experience would be seamless and require as little effort as possible.

Are banks close to getting there?

Unfortunately, the industry has a ways to go. I experienced this myself recently when I tried to set up a new checking account to autopay my mortgage with a bank in the area. The process didn’t work, and eventually I gave up. After that, I got a call from an employee at the bank who said, “I see that you tried to set up a new account but didn’t complete the process.” So I told her about my problem, and she said to try it again from a different URL. This struck me as a bit odd. I asked, “Couldn’t you just complete the process for me?” And she said she couldn’t. I thought, “You can see that I’ve started, you know I’m an existing customer, you have all of my information, and you can’t just make this happen?” But she really couldn’t do it.

So I tried the new URL and received an auto-response message saying I would hear from them in two to four business days. Then a different employee called me back, and I had to explain my story all over again. She said my account was all set but I just needed to provide funding information. I asked her for my new account number to fund it myself but she declined, saying that their bank needed to send small dollar verifications first. That didn’t go over well because two days later she called me back saying the verifications were returned because she had recorded my routing and account number incorrectly.

Well, now it has been two weeks, and I still haven’t been able to set up autopay. It’s been a frustrating experience, and it has helped me better understand what banks can do to make things easier on their customers. We need to think from their perspective more often.

In this industry there aren’t many differentiators, and customers don’t stampede the lobby to bank with us, so when given the opportunity to attract new customers, we need to make sure they have the best experience possible — whether that is in the branch or through our digital channels.

From what you’re saying, it seems like the call center will become more important during the transition to digital.

Yeah, I think that’s right. The call center will be a valuable supplement to the digital experience. In reality, you can’t successfully have one without the other. I don’t think the human element will ever go away since even if you could create the best algorithm possible, it wouldn’t replace what humans can do in certain scenarios. Customers will always have moments when they need help from a human being, and that means the call center will become increasingly important.

In my previous example, I appreciated the follow-up call from the employee, but she fell short with her inability to assist me in completing my transaction and instead directing me back to the web. Had she been able to pick up where the digital channel left off and complete my account opening process, that would have been an amazing experience.

What about roles in the branch? How has the shift to digital banking changed those roles?

Well, for one thing, our tellers and customer service representatives aren’t exclusively focused on taking deposits and cashing checks anymore. Today, they are life coaches who help people make smarter financial decisions. They are also well versed in the industry as a whole, which empowers them to make informed recommendations based on the specific needs of the customer. We think of them as level 2 technicians — better informed and more specialized.

How do you train someone for that role?

It’s hard. Someone can have 30 years of banking experience, but if they don’t have enthusiasm and excitement about customer service it doesn’t matter. So the key for us is our hiring process. We choose people with a natural service-to-sales personality over someone with long-standing bank experience. The people we bring on are of a different caliber. We can teach them the banking part, but that kind of passion and enthusiasm you cannot emulate, even with the best of training programs.

It makes me think of an experience I had a few weeks ago. I went to Best Buy to get an iPad, and the sales rep there was upselling me and I didn’t even realize it. He was just excited about how my needs could be met through the product, and I felt good about my purchase as a result. That’s what we want our branch employees to do in banking.

To this end, we hire people from retailers outside of banking — places like Macy’s. These employees are used to talking in ways that make the customer feel good. They say, “Oh, do you like that shirt?” and then “Did you see these new pants?” They do it seamlessly. That’s what we’re looking for when we hire new employees.

So it sounds like branch employees are now expected to fill a variety of roles.

Yeah, banking isn’t what it was 30 or even 10 years ago. If you balance to the penny every day that’s awesome, but it’s not enough for what’s expected of branch employees in today’s environment. Digital requires all the employees in the branch to expand their responsibilities and be more flexible. Our branch staff knows a bit about everything from how to open an account to troubleshooting mobile banking apps. Tellers are now customer service representatives and vice versa. We even have branch managers who work the teller line sometimes because that’s what we need to do.

That levels the hierarchy a bit, doesn’t it?

Exactly. We are taking input from 25-year-old tellers, and they are designing and promoting certain customer initiatives. This creates a lot of buy-in from our employees, and everyone becomes an influencer. They are excited and engaged, and it shows. It’s catchy.

In the past I have heard employees say “I’m just a teller,” or “I’m just a customer service rep.” Now I say, “No, you are a really powerful part of our team, and you have a lot of good ideas. You are a consumer, and you have valid experiences to offer.” Sharing those experiences openly gives us the best of everything our organization has to offer. It’s not just a senior-executive team handing out decisions from a second floor office. We’re bringing it down to the front lines and collaborating to provide our customers with real solutions in real-time. This presents a lot of opportunity to innovate and to try something different. It’s definitely an exciting time to be in banking!


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Topics: Interview