Community banks are learning that it can be difficult teaching old bankers new tricks.

Replacing traditional tellers and customer service agents with universal bankers has become a popular option for financial institutions that are eager to reinvent their branches as foot traffic declines. The transition can prove challenging and anxiety inducing for some employees, while requiring extensive training that focuses heavily on the art of selling products.

"Branches need to be good sales outlets," said David Powell, president of Vitex. "Branches used to be a place for transactions, and then there might be a chance to sell a customer something. Customers come for a reason and you need to figure out what that need is."

Universal bankers must be a "jack of all trades" who can do everything from processing a deposit to accepting loan application, said Jim Edrington, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association's professional development group.

Though many large and regional banks quickly adopted the format, smaller banks are slowly warming up to the concept as well. The model has become so popular that the ABA recently launched a universal banker certificate program that focuses on key business lines, selling products and building strong customer relationships.

Successful banks are "proactively identifying those types of opportunities and, in that process, are building broader relationships," Edrington said. "The banks that are doing this well have created a nice handoff between their branch environment and their back-office area."

It would be foolhardy for a bank to assume it could simply flip a switch and adopt the new staffing model, industry observers said. It requires careful planning, added training for branch staff and clear communication from top management. It's also important for executives to consider customers' needs, geography and branch usage before deciding to make a change, Powell said.

Once the decision is made, training is vital. Training should largely focus on product knowledge, listening carefully and understanding customer needs at different stages of life, industry observers said.

Employees must learn to ask customers probing questions to identify needs, including some that the customer may not even realize, said Tim Scholten, founder of Visible Progress. This can be tricky and banks risk annoying customers if employees fumble while recommending other products and services.

"At the heart of this is having a conversation and asking good questions," Scholten said. "If I've solved a problem the customer wasn't even aware of, then I've added value to that transaction. We set that as our ultimate goal."

Training universal bankers may also happen in stages, as has been the case at Eastern Bank in Boston. The $8.8 billion-asset mutual thrift has been transitioning to its current version of universal bankers, called service associates, over the last four years.

Cross-training is a key component of Eastern's model. Account representatives go through a two-day refresher course on the duties traditionally completed by tellers. Meanwhile, tellers go through a six-day course, held over several weeks, to learn more about the technical side of the business, such as opening accounts and taking loan applications, said Robert DiGiovanni, Eastern's senior vice president of retail banking.

Despite a relatively smooth transition, Eastern encountered some resistance from employees who were asked to become service associates, DiGiovanni said. The company didn't force anyone to make the switch, though the majority of employees voluntarily went through the training.

Eastern added a new position at the end of last year, called a sales and service coach, who will develop ongoing training for service associates. The bank just completed its first voluntary training through the program; about 80% of service associates participated.

"Banks really need to think through the entire process," DiGiovanni said. The biggest concern for tellers involves selling products and services because they are worried after getting fired if they aren't successful, he said.

To compensate for such resistance, it is important that management teams clearly communicate the steps being taken to ensure a smooth transition and why change is needed, industry experts said. Eastern, which is expanding the duties of its teller managers so they fit more of a universal banker model, started the process by meeting with those employees. It was a great chance to reassure employees and answer any questions, DiGiovanni said.

It also helps to provide appropriate incentives to get employees on board and to make sure the new model is being implemented properly. Some banks set aggressive sales goals or require employees to push certain products, but such an approach can quickly sour customer relationships, Joe Sullivan, chief executive of Market Insights.

"The thing that makes people mad the most is when they aren't listened to," Sullivan said. "The best thing I can do is hear you and listen to your story. Banks that have aggressive sales goals or quotas on certain products make it hard to pay attention to customer needs."

Banks should take the approach that is being adopted in the health care industry - doctors and hospitals are being held accountable for outcomes for overall patient health rather than the numbers of procedures performed, Sullivan said. Incentives at banks should be focused on customer retention, share of wallet and how happy the customer is with service, he added.

"Whatever you call these frontline people, it is all about serving the customer," said Terry Jorde, chief of staff at the Independent Community Bankers of America. "The frontline can't be undervalued. They have to know the rules and help the customers and that's what contributes to the success of their institutions."

Jackie Stewart is a reporter for American Banker.

Read more: