A Financial Institution's Guide To Universal Associates & The Universal Banking Model

Who are universal associates? What does a universal branch look like? How can your branch adopt the universal banking model? Find the answers to these questions (and more) in this ultimate guide to UAs for financial institutions.

Branch design strategy has shifted dramatically over the past decade and it now takes more than a coat of paint to satisfy the 21st-century client—your members and customers want fast and efficient transactions with personalized service and the latest technologies that make banking more convenient. It’s now up to financial institutions to design their future branches with those conveniences if they want to be the ones that survive and thrive in 2019 (and beyond). Those too afraid to make the shift from transaction to advisory? Well, they’ll get left behind.

What’s driving this advisory, retail-heavy transition? The universal banking model; we’ll explain how with this guide.

1.  Defining The Universal Banking Model

More and more financial institutions are shifting toward the universal associate model to evolve their branch experience and better connect with clients. In hundreds of branches across the country, this new approach to servicing clients has created a repeatable path to success by decreasing costs, increasing staff flexibility, and supercharging client engagement. But what is this model and how does it actually work?

Adopting the Universal Associate Model is challenging: it requires attention to detail, capable technology, open and felxible design builds, proper training, and so much more. To help make this process simpler, we’ve gathered all the info you’ll need, and gathered into a resource library.

1.1  Inside The Industry’s Hottest Trend

While universal associates (UAs) have been an up-and-coming trend the past few years, 2019 is shaping up to be the year that it shifts to a mandatory addition to any branch design project. With the steady decline in foot traffic, higher transaction costs and rising salaries, banks and credit unions have realized that the traditional branch model is rapidly becoming irrelevant—leading to a switch to Universal Associates as a pro-active response to the most popular trends, like:

1.1.1  Less In-Branch Needs

Gone are the days of going to the bank on Friday or during a lunch break—banking can now be done from anywhere at any time thanks to browser, mobile and other application-based banking methods. Need proof? In-branch transaction volumes have declined more than 45% since 1992.

1.1.2  Inflation In Salary & Operation Costs

Let’s face it, it is more expensive than ever before to hire a full time employee (FTE). To put a number to it: the average FTE salary has risen 20% since 2000. So having less employees that can do more things, a.k.a. universal associates, is an easy solution.

1.1.3  An Increase In Customer Expectations

Over the past decade, changes to customer service in the retail world have resulted in greater consumer expectations. Restaurants, movie theaters and other retail industries have already adopted universal-based models, which means your clients have already been enjoying an advanced level of service while going about their daily business. In fact, 86% of banking consumers want responsive customer service, so if you don’t evolve to what they are already use to experiencing, your clients will quickly see you as outdated and find a more modern provider.

1.2  Who Are Universal Associates?

Whether you call them universal associates, universal tellers, or universal bankers, this role is best defined as an employee that is able to handle just about every type of transaction in the branch. Instead of specializing in one small area, a UA’s lack of specialization is precisely what makes them special. Since they’re not chained to a desk, office or teller station, a UA can roam through the branch freely to help clients with transactions and provide a more advanced level of service.

1.2.1  A Day In The Life Of A Universal Associate

The UA role can vary from branch to branch, but the job responsibilities remain similar in the course of a day, a typical universal banker will provide customer service, greet clients, process basic transactions, open and close new accounts and even process loan applications. And regardless of the task or transaction they are completing, they always have one goal: to be advise their client.

Typical Role Responsibilities:

•  Cross-sell all products
•  Open different types of client and business accounts
•  Handle the sale of complex products and services
•  Provide superior customer and member services
•  Conduct needs-based selling, thinking in terms of solving a prospect’s problem
•  Initiate branch marketing efforts (ie: branch events)
•  Support community programs
•  Easily transition between tasks and responsibilities
•  Perform any role within the branch: opening accounts, processing loans, teller transactions, etc.

1.2.2  Hiring A Universal Associate

When it comes to hiring the right people to act as your universal associates, the minum skills and experience requirements of a traditional teller or associate are no longer enough. This new, advanced role comes with new and advanced responsibilities.

Skills & Experience A Universal Banker Should Have:

•  Retail experience
•  Proficiency in using cash recyclers and dispensers
•  Consultative sales experience

Ideal Traits Of A Universal Associate:

•  Friendly
•  Outgoing
•  Positive
•  Not afraid to proactively sell and uncover clients’ needs to find the best solution
•  Committed
•  Desire to make an impact in people’s lives

A Cost-Benefit Analysis For Universal Associates

Universal Associates average an annual salary of $31,000 or $13.99/hr. (which is a significant jump from the typical teller salary of $23,000 or $10.76/hr.) However, while UAs earn a higher salary than tellers, the overall cost is on average reduced by 2 full time employees per location (salary and benefits), and there is less staff turnover.

2.  What Does A Universal Branch Look Like?

While anyone can call their staff “Universal”, it takes the right branch design and technology to make this strategy truly successful.

2.1  First Comes The Floor Plan

Switching to the universal banking model is a holistic shift, and that pivot begins with a branch of the future design that creates an exceptional client journey from start to finish. To get universal right, you’ll need to make your teller line more accessible so staff can easily transition between roles, ensure associates are available as a first point of contact, make sure all of your spaces are inviting, and create consultation areas that are open, yet allow the right amount of privacy.

Floorplan Of A Branch Operating On The Universal Associate Model

This sounds like a lot, but it really boils down to just a few key elements:

  1. Teller Towers vs Teller Lines: Break free from these confining lines. Replace teller counters with teller towers equipped with cash recyclers and give clients a comfortable place to have advisory conversations, learn more about branch services, and complete standard transactions. Your universal associates can also deposit and withdraw cash from the cash recyclers stationed here, eliminating the need to move back-and-forth.
  2. Service Spots vs Cubicles: Service Spot is a floating workstation that removes the barriers of the traditional banking experience and creates a more advisory, retail-feel to a branch. Use this space to create a comfortable, quick, private, and consultative area that can be placed anywhere in the branch.
  3. Flex Offices vs Closed Doors: Include flex offices in your universal strategy to give both your clients and staff a place to go when performing more complex transactions that require an additional level of privacy. Unlike traditional offices that are limited to one employee, flex offices can be shared by all members of your staff, getting repeatable use from your space.
  4. Community Rooms vs Empty Conference Rooms: Get involved with your community by giving them a space to gather for events like community hall. Not only does this align your brand with the needs of the people your branch serves, but it also gets people through your branch door who may not be current clients of yours.
  5. Discovery Area: Host all of your interactive digital displays in a centralized area of your branch where clients can learn about and engage with your products and services. Examples of digital signage that perform best in these areas include: digital screens, interactive kiosks and tablets and digital community boards. 

2.2  Then Comes The Technology

You can build the perfect branch and have an experienced team of universal bankers, but if you don’t have the right technology you won’t be able to take advantage of the universal model’s biggest benefit: flexibility. To maximize the universal experience in your branch, you’ll seriously want to consider a way to initiate transactions remotely, which requires a solid core integration and cash recyclers.

Remote Transaction Assist, RTA

2.2.1  Remote Transaction Assist (RTA)

One way to break the chains of these peripherals is with Remote Transaction Assist (RTA), prounounced ree-ta, a CFM innovation that drives the future of retail banking by using pin pad and queuing technology to make your cash dispensers and recyclers available to all your tellers and associates–from any spot in the branch. Now, whether staff are standing right next to a cash machine, working in an office, or greeting in the lobby, the clients can be served from start to finish.

For a great example of how all of this comes together, take a look at Pioneer Federal Credit Union’s journey to becoming completely universal. They moved to an open branch design, implemented universal representatives, then added RTA to create a truly universal model that skyrocketed their staff and client experience.

2.2.2  NOMADIX

Another technology found in a universal branch that is known for providing fluid transactions (and referred to as the next level up from RTA) is CFM’s newest addition: NOMADIX. A core-integrated, tablet-based application that decreases your footprint and unlocks the chains of teller lines and workstations, NOMADIX allows universal associates to complete transactions from anywhere in the branch and easily choose when and how they engage with peripherals such as scanners, recyclers, and printers.

NOMADIX, Universal Associate Interface

Transactions that can now be completed from anywhere include:
•  Secure teller and client authentication
•  Full account level view of client
•  Receipt reprints
•  Cash deposits
•  Cash withdrawals
•  Bill breaking
•  Transferring money
•  Paying loans or credit cards
•  Cashier’s check printing

2.2.3  NEXTNEXT Self-Service Machine

And if you want to take it a step further into the world of universal banking, there are self-service and assisted-service machines, like NEXT. With our self-serivce kiosk built around the NOMADIX interface, NEXT is the smartest self-service machine ever built: fully core-integrated, NEXT automates almost all transactions that can be completed at the teller line, and even allows for assisted-service and full-service accessibility from an associate using a nearby tablet. So should a client run into an issue, a teller or associate can step in to assist them or take over the transaction entirely to ensure a successful completion.

Not only does this make the branch experience easier and more modern for your client, but it saves you a lot of money. By handling the mass amount of simple transactions, self-service technology keeps your associates available for more high-value interactions, like setting up a new account or fitting a client for a loan.

2.2.4  Digital Advisory Tools

When clients walk into your branch today, how are you helping them navigate through life’s financial journey? Are they openly sharing their goals and interests and asking you for advice on the right products and services for their unique aspirations? Or do you feel like you’re playing a game of 20 questions just to figure out what they really need?

If you’re operating on the traditional banking model, you’re most likely also operating in the dark when it comes to being able to personalize your services to and advise your clients. Because even in a financial institution, talking about money can get a little uncomfortable, which means striking up conversations with clients about their goals and products can be challenging. What’s more: declining in-branch transactions have created fewer opportunities for staff to connect with clients face-to-face, so staying relevant and engaging with clients  is more important than ever before. That’s where the universal associate model and advisory-style technologies come to the rescue. DBSI’s Digital Signage Agency has developed two applications that are built to capture client data and help universal associates uncover client needs in order to align products and services:

  1. Financial HealthCheck: The first of the apps developed to help universal bankers move from transactional to advisory, the Financial HealthCheck (FHC) is an online tool that helps clients self-assess key financial indicators in just 90 secondsgenerating an instant report of how they’re doing financially and where they stand against their peers. Once complete, they then have the option to receive this report by email, or take it one step further and request an appointment to review with a universal associate in the branch. From these requests, your financial institution receives a real-time lead alert with the information from that same report. With every submission, you’ll learn more about your client’s unique financial hopes, dreams, and aspirations — everything you need to help guide relevant advisory conversations (without even asking!)
  2. Service Sidekick: By enabling Service Sidekick, universal bankers are empowered with tools and information to accurately advise to client interests, meaning they can eliminate the guesswork on what clients need, personalize conversations based on real activity, and spend less time engaging in cold conversations. Designed to take the anonymous activity completed on your interactive digital signage and turn it into actionable interest with real-time alerts and analytics, this tool is placed on the back end of your interactive digital displays and kiosks so the moment a client interacts with a product or service on your digital signage screens, universal associates immediately receive a notification to their wearable device (ie: smartwatch), tablet, or PC to alert them on what is viewed.

3.  Training To The Univeral Banking Model

Training can make the difference between getting average results and completely knocking the ball out of the park. You can build the perfect branch with a design even Apple envies, integrate the newest, most innovative technology and hire great staff–but if your associates aren’t trained on how to deliver on your strategy to elevate the branch experience, you’ll never see the results you’re looking for.

Surprisingly enough, there are many organizations that believe making the switch to universal banking is easy and that all you need to prepare for this is a brand new title for associates.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Something has been forgotten, and that something is training.Training is the most overlooked (and underemphasized) element when universal associates are being brought to branches.

To tie everything together, maximize the benefits of universal associates, accurately define where you need to start, and ensure your associates can fully embrace and execute on your strategic and operational intent, training must become a priority for your branch network. Why? Because the move to the UA model requires a massive shift in mindset, process, people and technology from the entire team–and changes of this magnitude are too involved (and too important) to roll out through a company-wide email or Powerpoint presentation. Instead it’s all about employing a consistent, “all hands on deck” approach from the very beginning to strengthen your team and break habits of the past. Not only does this clear the slate for a solid new foundation, it helps refresh your current culture to thrive within this new model.

3.1  How Long Should The UA Training Program Last?

The typical length of a universal training program ranges from 8 – 12 weeks. After the model is piloted, evaluation will surely follow. Career paths become more defined, technology is tested, and feedback is given for constant improvement. Because of this, consolidated ongoing training to “refresh” employees on the universal strategy, branch goals and potential modifications, if any, will be key.

3.2  What Should The UA Trainging Program Include?

The Universal Associate training program can be broken down into three key areas:

Training Needs For Universal Associates

3.2.1 Focus-Shift Training

Start off your staff’s onboarding by overcommunicating the shift in focus. By helping your staff truly understand the universal model, the strategic intent behind its implementation and what it means for them personally, you ‘ll begin with  correct expectations on what delivery of the enhanced client experience should be. In this first portion of training, it’s all about transparency. In addition to creating an open dialogue for any questions or concerns, anticipate what your staff may ask ahead of training and plan on delivering answers to questions before they ask. Lastly, ensure your staff walks away knowing that you are all in this together as one team. Without every moving part operating at its full potential, this model won’t achieve the results you’re looking for. Every staff member plays a significant role in delivering an incredible client experience from end to end–and every interaction counts!

3.2.2  Skills Training

Now that you’ve helped your staff define the universal associate strategy and their individual roles, it’s time to train them on the skills they’ll need to master for their daily responsibilities. While universal associate skill sets can vary from branch to branch, comprehensive training on the below areas (and technology used to complete them) should be completed:
• New accounts
• Teller training
• Regulatory and compliance
• Small business lending
• Community involvement
• Operations
• Service quality standards
• Consumer lending

In addition to the areas above, more in-depth training must be done on the skills that are equally important but not clearly defined. While teller training can be transactional, there are plenty of situations within the branch without predictable outcomes, requiring universal bankers to think on their feet, like:
• Client relationship building
• Understanding products and services and where they fit into a client’s lifecycle
• Understanding customer needs, promoting needs-based selling
• Non-negotiables, like minimum service standards
• Conflict resolution and best practices for handling tricky situations
• Teamwork and best ways to support other universal associates in the branch

The blend of both technical skills and “social savvy” will better prepare your universal associates for not only the defined elements of their job, but all the other interactions occurring outside of the training manual.

3.2.3  In-Branch Practice

Great–your team is up to speed on all the skills they’ll use in the branch, but they haven’t even stepped into the branch as a UA (yet!). This last part of training, in-branch practice, is the final piece of the puzzle, taking staff from the immersion into the new universal mindset to then utilizing the branch space, technology and skillset to seamlessly complete a start-to-finish interaction with phenomenal customer service.

Your practice runs shouldn’t include clients as your test subjects for universal associate training; in fact, clients should feel like your team members have been in universal associate roles for years from the moment they begin a conversation. Withouta dress rehearsal in the actual branch environment, your staff may walk in on a Monday morning and completely freeze–especially if you’ve recently made any changes in design or technology.

There’s no better time than training to get all the awkward, silly interactions out of your staff’s system before they serve your clients. The easiest way to facilitate “practice makes perfect” is the tried and true method of role playing in the branch:
•  Role play scenarios until associates have mastered the interaction from the moment the client steps in to the branch to the moment they leave
•  Practice switching roles until all staff members can comfortably play both the client and UA
•  Encourage engagement from associates not actively participating in the role play: have them take notes, ask questions, give feedback or supply coaching tips
•  Recap individual interactions and get group feedback, highlighting key takeaways and any do’s/don’ts you’ve noticed
•  Emphasize the cross-sell opportunities within each role play interaction
•  Ask for more detailed feedback from the team: how could we have made that interaction more meaningful? What could we have done to serve them better? Was there any opportunity to cross-sell, and if so, how did you know?

3.3  The Delivery Defined Program

Developing a training program is a lot of work (it’s a full-time job on its own!), and new initiatives within the branch are too important to let slip. That’s why CFM offers a program called Delivery Defined to help you support your staff and maximize the success and benefits of your new staffing model.

Delivery Defined allows for your associates to get involved in the training process, compiles extensive research on your market and desired branch state, and packages up everything you need to flawlessly execute a universal staffing model–customized to your branch. This includes:
•  Hiring process, including roles and profiles
•  Training
•  Talk tracks
•  Sales playbooks
•  On-site reources to train your staff
•  Role playing and other exercises
•  Branded playbook to map out every transition or situation that could happen (trust us, we’ve seen it all!)

If you’re interested in learning more about bringing the Delivery Defined program to your branch(es) to simplify the introduction of universal associates, click here to get in touch with a member of the CFM team.

4.  Ask An Expert

When it comes to properly adopting the universal banking model, there are a lot of moving parts that need to be managed: from design and build, to tech, to digital signage, to training, and beyond. You could attempt to balance all these factors on your own, or even worse: you could hire multiple vendors to handle the multiple pieces of the project and cross your fingers they communicate well enough to independently put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Or you can instead hire a full-service branch transformation firm, like DBSI and CFM, for peace-of-mind that your shift to universal will be a successful one. Capabale of not only balancing every moving part of the shift to the UA model, the turn-key approach to our solutions makes putting together the universal puzzle easier (and faster) than ever.

Want to learn the right way to bring universal associates into your branch network? Just click here to contact us and a CFM advisor will work with you to make customized recommendations for your unique universal needs.