When bankers aren’t tearing their hair out over regulation, fintech, or the diminished reputation of the banking profession, we worry about the Fate of the Branch.
What is our strategy for the expensive branch networks that we’ve built over the last several decades, now that they appear to no longer be necessary for bank customers to do their banking?
The appearance of the ATM ushered in vast change that has gathered pace with online banking and, now, remote deposit and mobile banking. These technological innovations, born of the internet, seem to have done away with the innovation of an earlier era: using a banker, in a secure office, to solve a financial problem.
This is in some ways an existential question that affects community banks very strongly. Community banks are built on close relationships to the neighborhoods we serve, with much smaller branch networks than the mega-banks that now dominate public perception of the industry.
For Lead Bank, the answer to this fundamental question is found in a commitment to innovation at all levels of the client’s branch experience.
How we handle innovation
Lead Bank is a family-owned community bank that focuses on small businesses. About one-third of our accounts are business accounts and with our roots in the rural community, agriculture, and farming companies still comprise a fair share of our business mix. We have three facilities in the Kansas City metro area, the most recent of which was opened in 2015 in the entrepreneurial Crossroads Art District in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
Our approach to innovation is built on two counter-intuitive ideas.
First, that small, independent banks have the best opportunity to demonstrate innovation that serves their clients.
Second, that innovation through technology is really about human connection.
Our Crossroads branch reflects our goal to adopt the latest in banking technology fused with re-thought spaces and modes of human interaction.
As one of the only family-owned banks in the Downtown area, our clients have access to local decision makers and the Lead Bank executive team, which allows for more transparency and quicker lending decisions.
Our bank’s architecture, technology, and service are all melded to deliver an omni-channel environment for our clients to get their financial work done safely and fast. (In regard to safety, we were the first in our area to adopt the dot-bank domain name, offering an extra level of online security for our clients.)
Gone are the brass nameplates, big offices, and teller counters that created a divide between staff and patrons.
These typical symbols of banking don’t actually serve clients, and worse yet, they convey the impression that the bank is more interested in its own functions rather than its service to clients.
In place of desks and cubicles, we created two open “Library Tables” where Lead Bankers literally sit on the same side of the table to assist and guide our clients.
"Library Table" venue permits banker and customer to work more closely than traditional office desks allow.
The client is always in charge, deciding where and how to meet, whether it's at a Library Table; one of the cozy “Mentor Booths,” that provide a higher degree of privacy; a private conference room; on the rooftop patio; or via videoconferencing to any of the other Lead Bank locations.
"Mentor Booths," reminiscent of going to a diner, provide a more private meeting place for customers than the library tables.
It’s all about engagement
Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The response to our new bank design, our approach to banking, and the ability to personally interact on a different level with our clients is a breath of fresh air.
I’ve personally seen how they’re more willing to come into the branch location more often vs. doing business over the phone. The video conferencing is becoming more popular as well.
Lead Bank is adjacent to the city’s new streetcar line and our Crossroads parking lot has rechargeable car stations that are available to the public. We host First Fridays in our parking lot, giving local artists an opportunity to showcase their work and local foodies an opportunity to park their food trucks. These initiatives circle back to our core values, who and what we want to be—a bank for the community.
Many local organizations, from nonprofits to yoga instructors to area businesses, utilize our rooftop mezzanine for meetings and after-hours gatherings. Staff is onsite to answer questions and show potential new clients our amenities.
We’re engaging with people in a jovial, warm way. Gone are the stiff, cold banker ways.
Clients are invited to come in and work at the Workbench, which features an advanced ATM and an internet-enabled videoconferencing terminal. The Workbench is a statement that we recognize many time-pressed business owners prefer. They like using self-service options as long as they have immediate access to a human who is readily available to help solve a problem if they run into trouble.
"Workbench" combines sitdown ATM and video conferencing.
Branch as community catalyst
We believe that the bank also has a community role to play. That’s why we invite community groups and businesses to use our conference rooms for their important meetings. It’s for this reason, too, that Lead Bank donated a portion of the first floor of the building to the City of Kansas City’s “Launch KC” technology business competition.
Launch KC is a grants competition for tech startup firms where winners are supported and assisted with mentoring and funding so they’ll develop into high growth, successful businesses in Downtown Kansas City, Mo.
For the last two years, we’ve provided office space and banking services to three emerging technology companies that were awarded a Launch KC grant. This relationship brings innovators and technology investors directly into the bank environment and culture.
The combination of our new layout and design, combined with our modern-day approach to banking and conversations around banking, keeps everyone on their toes and thinking about innovation.
Importance of the “third place”
Clients and non-clients alike have responded to our re-think with an enthusiasm that we didn’t fully expect. They can see that we respect the way they want to interact with us, rather than imposing our views on them.
Far from being reluctant to use the Library Tables, or even to hang out and work privately in our café (worries we had in the design phase), clients have made our bank their “third place,” outside of their office and home.
People come here knowing they can get the work done to move their business ahead. We are here to help them move up.
[Sociologists speak of third places, such as cafes, clubs, libraries, barber shops, and other locations where community members come together beyond home and office, the first two places.]
The goal for Lead Bank is to shake up artificial barriers to interaction in traditional bank branches, and change how people think about interacting with their bankers. We’re convinced that one of the roles a community bank should fill is helping to solve problems for that community in which they reside.
The bank branch must be a place where bankers and clients, businesses and organizations, can get together, roll up their sleeves, and build the trust necessary to build the community, together.
About the author
Joshua Rowland is vice-chairman and CEO at Kansas City’s Lead Bank.