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The Community Bank of the Future: What's it going to look like? (May 7, 2010)

The Apple Store Experience: Beyond the technology
An occasional series about your future 

 

The Community Bank of the Future: What's it going to look like? (May 7, 2010)

This is the first in a series that will appear now and then on this speculative, yet critical, issue for community banks. We welcome comments below, and we also offer bankers and other qualified observers a possible turn at the microphone on this subject. Send your ideas to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 


“What is the community bank of the future going to look like?”

This question came as a group of bankers gathered around a conference table. They had spent the morning sharing their own slices of the current angst with each other. Then they decided they had to rise above gloom and doom, and look forward.

An Ohio banker had put this question to the group. His point was:

I intend my bank to have a future on the other side of this “Valley of the Shadow of Death” we’re all facing. So do you all.

So, what are we going to look like? What are we going to offer?

How will we appeal to today’s young people, who never go into banks, who think good service means a reliable WiFi connection; the latest iPhone; an online banking site, or, better yet, a killer mobile banking app; and debit and prepaid cards?


How do we stay relevant?  

Apple: A nonbank model for relevance?
I was sitting in on the meeting. I put in my own two cents: Had anyone present ever been to an Apple Store? It had been the reference to the young people that made me think of it, and you’ll see why shortly.

One or two bankers had been to these stores. There are more than 200 of them worldwide, including in 41 states. But most hadn’t. I had been to the Apple Store at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, N.Y.,  just the week before.

I told the bankers what I had seen at the Apple Store, and why I thought it related to the banking question, especially on the generational front.

You ought to check out an Apple Store. In the meantime, I’ll tell you what I told the bankers. At the end, I’ll present questions that my visit prompted about bank offices.

By the way, this won’t be a story that worships all that is Apple—it’s more a “warts and all” tale. Please comment back regarding the Apple concept’s relevance to banking, especially community banking. You can find the locations of Apple stores, should you wish to visit one first, at www.apple.com/retail/storelist

Before you conclude that this is a story about technology, I’ll tell you that you’re only a little bit right.

It’s more a story about customer connection and customer service. You could spend a great deal of money and plunk a traditionally oriented bank into a high-tech shell and still have a traditionally oriented bank. Part of the question that the Ohio banker was posing was wrapped up in this point of his:

We all around this table pride ourselves in what we, and our current customers, consider to be excellent service, right?

Well, what if what we call service isn’t what our future customers give a damn about?


http://www.bankingexchange.com/images/stories/briefing5610_genuis_bar_logo.jpgApple service: Appointment with a “Genius”
The scene: My wife and I are sitting on a somewhat comfortable bench with an oversized rollaboard containing two Apple Macintosh computers that need serious help. I tried the online diagnostics, and more, before I threw in the towel and called the Apple Store the day before.

I’d been watching my younger daughter’s softball game, and remarked to my wife, who had arrived earlier, that I’d given up and would take the machines to Apple. A mom nearby in the bleachers overheard us. She advised calling ahead for an appointment.

That was something I hadn’t thought of. I pulled out my Blackberry. I joined a queue of six or seven callers. Not only did I have to have an appointment, but I needed one for each machine.

The appointment was with an Apple “Genius.” Later I went to Apple’s website, having been to the store in the meantime, and found this definition, from the company’s jobs page:

“Genius: As a friendly face behind the Genius Bar, you’ll be able to take the thorniest questions and answer them in plain old English. Do hardware and software troubleshooting. Provide basic customer training. And perform timely repairs. All of which make for some very happy customers. Last but not least, you’ll serve as a resident expert and coach for your sales associate colleagues.”

Within seconds, emails popped up on my Blackberry confirming both appointments. So far, so good.

How many of your customers consider making an appointment with one of your bankers as an appointment with a real genius? Could your bank get away with the same marketing hubris Apples strives for? Do they see interactions with your staff as only transactional? Or do they see them as valuable?

Consider these questions as you read on.  The slogan for the Apple Store is : “Come to shop. Return to learn.”

Angst amidst the madhouse
Those email notifications came in handy the next day. An auto accident on a main route looked as if it would make us late. We arrived in the mall’s mammoth—and packed—parking lot as my wife used the notifications to warn Apple we were running behind. We were assured we wouldn’t have the appointments cancelled on us. 

Finding the Apple Store was no problem. In an already crowded mall—“Recession? What recession?”—it was the packed store with folks practically spilling out of it. Young people—and some older than my own 50+ years—in blue Apple t-shirts rode herd on hundreds of people of all ages gathered at waist-high tables, trying out the latest gadgets, games, and software. The noise of humanity and machines deafened, on top of the piped-in music. (At least I think there was piped-in music.) The store is probably the cheapest form of e-entertainment around—no quarters required, and that’s probably dating myself.

We almost literally waded our way through the crowd, through a store longer than a bowling alley, to the very rear: The Genius Bar.

The Genius Bar is where one meets the Apple genius assigned to one’s case. It’s a long, long counter where more of the blue-shirted staff stand. Customers can stand on their side of the bar, or pull up a barstool.

We were intercepted by a roving receptionist, in blue shirt, with a portable tablet that might have been the new iPad. She logged us in and promised to call us when it was our turn at the bar.

Dazzling the eye, constantly entertaining
That is, when one’s appointment actually comes up.

But there’s lots to keep your mind occupied, if you need that.

You can just people watch.

But behind the bar are huge video walls with imagery in almost continuous motion. One moment, you are looking at the queue for the type of appointment related to your problem, continuously updated. Some types were already completely booked for the day, and apparently unavailable for walk-ins who didn’t know of the need for an appointment.

Other data and images fly around incessantly. A ten-second mini-video pops up explaining what an SMS message is (“short message service,” by the way).

A product demonstration pops up in another part of the wall.

A quick presentation shows how to manipulate and email photos on an iPhone.

Definitions scroll by, and time rolls by. And so on.

All the while, I’m thinking: If a bank did this to me, how would I feel, and react?

The effect is almost mesmerizing, alternatively attracting to my dinosaur eyes and alternatively annoying to my schedule.

It is an idea taken from innumerable bank teller lines featuring informational videos and such, and from those banks that offer information and such on plasma walls of their own. Disney has been doing things like this at its theme parks for years, all to cross sell you; involve you in advance in the story of the ride; or, ultimately, to take away the feeling that you are, after all, waiting on an endless line.

But I’ve got a watch. And I wasn’t on vacation.

I was getting pretty annoyed as our worry about running a few minutes late retreated into the absurd.

“This is kind of like a doctor’s office, isn’t it?” I told my wife.

I also realized, suddenly, that I had no idea if I was going to be paying anything for my two appointments. I hadn’t thought to ask.


 


“It ain’t heavy, it’s my laptop”

While I waited, I was increasingly amazed to see the cross section of society that was waiting amid all the noise and display. They were all lugging some kind of Apple technology. One kid who looked about 14 carried a desktop Macintosh that he could barely carry. Others not much older came in with laptops needing attention. Parents were there with younger kids, bearing shopping bags containing wounded or uncooperative technology. The stream of iPhone users proved more fascinating still.

Blue-shirted geniuses periodically disappeared through, or emerged from, a silver door behind the bar. The mystery zone.

A few years back I’d been in a community bank, also on Long Island, that experimented with “branches of the future” that included the concept of sit-down banking, where any need not served by a branch “concierge” would be served by a personal banker. For the sake of security, the bankers’ desks weren’t equipped with tills. Instead, the tills were located in a secure back room, another mystery zone.

In another case, in Connecticut, tellers work at sit-down stations, with customers sitting across the counter, and the tills are located, as traditionally, right by the teller.

In some ways, the Genius Bar seemed to fulfill the same function, but with differences that became apparent.

Sanity amidst the madhouse
I’m not sure how much time elapsed, in the end, but I was pretty frosted by the time our turn came. (Mind you, we were there in the first week or so of the iPad, so that could account for the wait and craziness.)

We met the very competent and friendly Agnes (not her real name), a woman in her early 20s.

She asked about the older machine first. She plugged in a portable hard drive and performed a battery of diagnostics while we watched. She located the problem in short order. But then she advised us that the machine, while to me still a very serviceable device, had long been considered “vintage,” to use Apple’s label. Apple Stores don’t do “vintage” device repairs—the company actually doesn’t make parts for them, either—and Apple instead leaves that to authorized independent servicers. She gave us some data to take to the shop, and a printout of the servicer closest to our home.

Then came the “newer” machine, Appointment Two.

Agnes performed some tests and, after a trip to the mystery zone beyond the silver door, decided to check the serial number on the Apple database. She told us within two months this machine, also, would go into vintage status.

Somewhere in the midst of this, a boy about 15 years old came back asking about his laptop and the operating system repair he’d left it for.

He clearly didn’t get the concept of not interrupting another person’s appointment. But Agnes gave him the short version and excused herself, as she was helping us.

The kid continued to sit next to us at the bar, glowering. Clearly, he was annoyed that the re-installation of the software hadn’t worked, and that we stood between him and the genius. The layout and concept encouraged his remaining on top of us. He grew more impatient as time wore on, and yanked out his iPhone to beef to a friend.

We asked questions about the full implications of “vintage.” It turned out this meant that any repairs made would only be guaranteed so far, and, as well, there was the issue of spare parts after the machine went into vintage status.

Clearly, the message behind all this “vintage” stuff was, “Let us sell you the NEW generation.” Surely this is a major reason Apple Stores exist.

Sign here, in INK
Oddly, then came the agreement for the repair. In this Temple of Electrons, one might expect an all-electronic transaction, finishing with a biometric thumb-scan.

Nope. From somewhere beneath the bar, Agnes produced crisp laser-printed paper contracts, disclosures, and releases.

They had to be signed.

With an ordinary ballpoint pen.

Apple, for all its technology—and I’ve been a Mac fan for years—was no more able to avoid paper than the typical mortgage lender who must kill half a tree to close a transaction.

Another thing that bothered me—after the fact, actually, after my wife pointed it out—I was asked for personal information relating to the contract within the earshot of the unhappy teen, who continued to perch near me on his Genius Bar stool. My wife worried that, since he already seemed to feel we were infringing on his time by being ahead of him, that he might hack our accounts out of sheer revenge.

Ultimately, we wrapped up and went home.

Considering the Apple experience

My wife and I talked a great deal about the experience in the Apple Store. While I write about banking, she handles virtually all of our family finances. This includes extensive online banking with several institutions, including billpay; usage of live banking facilities for our local institution in both traditional and supermarket locations; and more.

We felt that Agnes had given us highly skilled and professional service; had been friendly without being “gushy”; had kept the implied sales pitch to a decent level, with no feeling of “bait and switch”; had been explicit about what was being guaranteed and what our risks were; had answered many detailed questions without giving any indication of being rushed or wanting to rush us; and hadn’t done anything that made us feel we hadn’t been well served. That is, once we got past the long wait, and that wasn’t her fault.

An important point to add. We had about 45 minutes, or so it seemed, of her mostly undivided attention. And there was no charge for any of the diagnostics, or anything about the appointments at all.

If we had decided not to choose the repairs, we would have walked out at no cost at all. That was impressive. Where we live, most repairmen charge at least $100 just to show up.

A downside was the later followup, actually, though that could have been looked at two ways.

What happened was this. Flying to San Antonio for the banker meeting that opened this article, with my wife along, we had to change through Atlanta. While awaiting our next flight, I was scrambling to finish a magazine story at an airport computer desk. My wife told me our daughter had called to say that the Apple Store had called to say they were holding up the repair until they had our definite OK. The issue, again, was the approaching “vintage” status.

I cursed to myself over this.

I had things to do, I was over 21, and had already signed a detailed printed contract for the repair.

What part of “do it” did Apple not understand, several business days after the authorization had been signed?

I called the Apple Store and found myself back in the phone queue, waiting almost 23 minutes to speak to someone. I plugged in my headset and kept writing. Finally, a live person. They asked for an order number. I said I was in an airport, far from home, thought I dispensed with the question of the repair five days earlier, and didn’t have the file with me. I was back on hold for another five minutes or so.

Then my oral OK was taken, and the work commenced—I hoped.

Is this consumer protection taken to a fault? Or just Apple covering itself? As it turned out, my wife called me shortly before this article went online--almost a week after the airport incident. Apple called again about the "vintage" issue. Work had STILL not begun on the computer. Apple AGAIN wanted clearance to go ahead with the work. You can ponder on the meaning of service; I won't belabor you with any more updates on this particular case, other than to say that I still don't think there was any intentional "bait and switch," just a technological juggernaut that perhaps ought to learn to keep better records. And, no, I wouldn't put up with this from a bank. But there are lots of banks.

A banking take on the Apple experience
What struck me about the overall Apple Store episode was how consumers of all ages were drawn there. Some regard malls as a form of entertainment, so going to the Apple Store for all the free tryouts and games may have appeal. It’s hard to see what parallel consumers would have in financial services. Any kind of “what iffing” with one’s finances would more likely be easily deliver via website. But in the last day I’ve heard about a bank that has launched new branches where consumer education is a key service. I’ll be looking into this.

Yet Apple clearly has something the younger generation considers important enough to visit a physical office for, going back to the banker’s questions.

Other services that the stores offer include training sessions—you can join the lists for these online. These are offered both for consumers and for business customers and prospects. Subjects include using the iPad, the iPhone, and the Mac.

In addition to these group affairs, there are Apple One to One sessions. One to One sessions cost $99 for a year, and are available for purchase only at the time the customer buys their device. This service includes upfront services, such as transfer of data and software from an old machine to a new one, with dropoff service. One to one training assistance is available under the $99 arrangement, as is small-group training, and also online training.

(We have been hearing more and more about bankers adopting Macs. If you personally, or your bank officially, use Macs for banking work, please e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for potential inclusion in an upcoming article.)

Some questions for bankers to ponder:
1—Is it reasonable to say that many routine banking transactions will no longer be live events, especially as electronic banking continues to take over more and more volume? What purpose, then, will branches play for retail banking?

2—Recent events have demonstrated that uneducated consumers are walking time bombs. When they have problems, inevitably traditional banks have problems, as legislators and regulators adopt broad-brush solutions. Financial literacy training increasingly seems critical for the modern consumer. Is the bank branch the place that that could be delivered, one-on-one, in groups, and otherwise, to continue to appeal to younger consumers?

3—For some time, bankers have been “go-to” people for financial advice and business input. Is that doomed to be solely a relationship-building tool? Or do services like “One to One” imply that some Americans see sound advice as something worth paying for?

4—In a related vein: Many community banks offer seminars and related events for small business customers. Is there a way to build on such experience in a mold like the Apple Store, such that small business owners would come to see your bank as the place to be for advice, information, perhaps even fee-based consulting?

5—When the dust of current issues settles, will the banking business model debate over transactional banking versus relationship banking settle into a different spot? Are there any lessons to learn here from the Apple Store?

6—My experience with the sullen teenager, and our worries about privacy bring to mind issues about the penchant of much recent banking office design away from walls and doors. Is your bank missing any business because customers don’t feel your offices permit adequate privacy for their affairs?

7—Is there an element of showmanship that the new generations insist on in all their services, like the Apple video walls? Will bankers have to bow to that to retain their appeal versus competitors? Or is this just a trend that youngsters will tire of before most banks can plaster plasma screens around the main floor?

We’d like to hear your thoughts, your own experiences in the Apple Store, and your views on the community bank of the future.

Visit this Apple Store’s page   

Tagged under Community Banking,

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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