AUGUSTA – With more banking transactions shifting out of branches and onto smartphones, some financial institutions are trying to provide customers visiting their locations with more than just a teller to count cash.

A recently opened bank branch in Augusta is following a trend that has gained traction in southern Maine, employing a strategy focused on creating more personal connections with its customers by ditching the traditional teller counter.

Skowhegan Savings recently opened a branch on Route 27 that’s set up for what is called dialogue banking.

The building has two stations in the middle of its main room with two tellers at each station instead of all behind one counter.

Each service station, or pod, has a machine to handle the counting of cash for deposits and withdrawals, similar to an ATM.

The idea is that the teller can have more of a conversation with a customer while conducting the transactions.

“Instead of spending time counting money and doing transactions, they’re spending time greeting the customers, understanding what their needs are,” Skowhegan Savings President John Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon pointed out the spaciousness of the setup during a tour of the northern Augusta location last week.

“As you can see walking in, it’s just a lot more open,” he said. “Open and friendlier, we think.”

The branch appears to be the first financial institution in the Augusta area using dialogue banking, but the practice has been employed by some southern Maine banks and credit unions for about five years.

The South Portland-based Town & Country Federal Credit Union has been a leader with the concept in Maine. In 2007, the credit union opened the state’s first dialogue branch at its Saco location, according to Chief Financial Officer Robert Leger.

Its Saco and South Portland branches also have a dialogue banking setup.

Leger said feedback has been positive from customers. The number of products and services transacted per customer is higher than at the credit union’s traditional branches.

The setup also allows more feedback to be gathered from members than at the traditional branches, Leger said.

“We want to build deep relationships with people, and I don’t think separating ourselves with 30 inches of marble, granite or oak is the best way to do that,” he said.

Leger said approximately 80 percent of people have more than one financial institution, and the dialogue banking setup allows Town & Country staff to learn more about why their customers use services at other institutions.

He said one of the goals of the system is to create a comfortable environment where people can go for personal financial advice.

“Your finances are one of the most personal things you can have personal conversation about,” Leger said. “The more you can make people feel comfortable and open up, the more beneficial it will be for the consumer.”

Christopher Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association, said it’s cheaper for financial institutions, like any service provider, to serve their current customers than acquire new ones.

He said one of the benefits of dialogue banking is that employees have more chances to offer additional banking options to customers.

“The cross-selling opportunity is probably greater in the comfort of a branch than by sending a flier or doing a pop-up ad on a website,” Pinkham said. “So part of it is looking for ways to bring more services to that customer.”

Skowhegan Savings plans on gathering feedback about dialogue banking at the Augusta bank before implementing it at other locations, Witherspoon said.

He expects the company to have a mix of dialogue banking and traditional teller branches in the future.

The bank has 10 locations and is purchasing five branches in Franklin County from Camden National Bank.

The construction of the building and the land cost the bank about $2 million, according to Witherspoon. The new location replaced the bank’s Belgrade branch.

Witherspoon said one of the reasons the bank went with dialogue banking at its Augusta location was to differentiate itself in the market. He said it also fit well with that location’s customers and employees.

Vicki Alward, senior vice president of retail banking at Skowhegan Savings, said the bank is considering adding cash machines at the service pods in its other traditional locations.

She said she expects other banks to adopt that same technology.

“It is a technology that is available, and banks should be trying to implement it where they can,” Alward said. “For us, it was a great time to implement because we were building a new branch.”

When asked why some other institutions haven’t adopted the dialogue banking model, Leger of Town & Country said, “Change can be difficult for the banks to embrace, but I think it should be considered more progress than change.”

John Murphy, president of the Maine Credit Union League, said institutions typically switch to a new setup like dialogue banking only if they’re already planning renovations or if they’re building a new branch.

He said he expects the number of institutions using the strategy to grow as it becomes more popular.

The additional advice and services that can be provided at the dialogue banking pods can allow customers to benefit from visiting a branch, Murphy said.

He said it’s key for financial institutions to have a variety of delivery options for consumers, including mobile banking, full-service ATMs and physical branch locations.

“Ultimately it’s all about convenience to the members,” Murphy said, “allowing them to do business where and when it is most convenient for them.” 

Paul Koenig can be contacted at 621-5663 or at:

pkoenig@mainetoday.com