July 1, 2013

Skowhegan Savings branch adopts 'dialogue banking'

A trend toward fostering closer teller-customer relationships arrives in Augusta.

By PAUL KOENIG Kennebec Journal

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.

click image to enlarge

John Witherspoon, president of Skowhegan Savings, says the company will gather feedback about dialogue banking in its Augusta branch before trying it in other locations.

Photos by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

click image to enlarge

Tellers work behind two pods Friday in the lobby of the new Skowhegan Savings branch on Route 27 in Augusta. The idea behind ‘dialogue banking’ is to free tellers to have more interaction with customers and present them with options.

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.

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