Pizza orders. Waxing appointments. And, more recently, booking branch visits.

As consumers manage more of their lives on their mobile devices and PCs, banks, slowly but surely, are updating their websites to make banking fit in with a digital lifestyle. In one new trend, they're letting customers schedule in-branch appointments online and through a mobile device, a la Apple, Staples and Best Buy

Regions Bank, for example, announced in early January an online appointment scheduling tool that lets people pick the time and location (including phone and/or branch) to speak with a banker about a product. This should help branch personnel avoid missed business connections and consumers escape long lobby wait times. The software could eventually affect the way the Alabama bank staffs personnel.

Needham Bank in Massachusetts is also letting customers schedule time with a product or service expert through a single click online or through a mobile device, while Bank of America and Wells Fargo are among the big banks providing a similar feature in varying capacities. Most financial institutions, however, have yet to integrate such a tool into their websites or mobile apps.

That will change.

Banks are pressured to rethink their channel delivery strategy as branches continue to lose volume and customers equipped with mobile devices are controlling when and how they wish to interact with the bank — and whether they abandon the a bank's site to apply for a mortgage at Bank Pick Me, for example.

These trends are "creating a real sense of urgency and spawning all kinds of things," says Bob Meara, senior analyst of the banking group at Celent. "Online booking is one action.... It will become commonplace."

The appointment tool not only helps managers determine the right level of staffing but also creates an opportunity for the employee to prepare for the customer who gets his needs met at a convenient time, he says.

Certainly, Regions sees such opportunities.

"The appointment setting opens a number of possibilities for us as bankers in how we serve customers and when we do so," says Lisa Law, senior vice president of manages branch support and delivery at Regions.

The software could eventually show Regions it needs to staff up specific specialists at a certain time of day so that a mortgage expert "is not just waiting to see if someone shows up," Law says.  "It allows us to know when customers want to be in branches."

Regions' business case for the new tool was based on the idea that it would improve the user experience for customers and prospects.

Regions uses an undisclosed third-party vendor to enable the appointment booking feature, which lets people book a meeting for the next business day, and in some special cases two business days in advance of a meeting. The automated appointment software will send confirmation emails to the consumer and the banker, including updates on changed or canceled appointment times. Then, branch associate greeters are expected to ask visitors whether they have scheduled appointments.

Currently, the tech is delivered as a standalone app accessed from employees' desktops. In the coming weeks, Law says the software will integrate with branches' internal systems and email.

That's a critical update. Such tools "will need to be tightly integrated," says Meara. "No one wants multiple calendars."

The feature underscores a broader trend among banks pressured to transform their branches.

"Bank branches are becoming all about sales and services," says Celent's Meara.

The scheduling tool will also smooth phone-based interactions. "Nobody wants to go through the IVR hold and then find someone who can't help you," Meara says.

And ideally, a bank's varied channels would work in harmony so that if a person calls up the bank, the agent could book the appointment on behalf of the customer, should he wish. "It needs to be [delivered] in an omnichannel way," he says.

Like any new feature, the actual customer in-branch experience delivered will matter to usage. "If it's a bad experience, the idea of online booking will be long forgotten," says Meara.

BMO Bank in Montreal has some online appointment scheduling experience already under its belt, having launched such a feature in spring 2012. In the first six months of the feature's debut, the Canadian bank booked an average of about 2,800 appointments per month, which grew to 3,300 appointments per month in 2013. All told, BMO has made roughly 60,000 in-person appointments digitally since launching, says Vince Ammendolia, senior manager for digital sales in BMO Bank in Canada.

BMO makes the booking capability available online through its public and authenticated website; about 55% of the appointments are unauthenticated. (An advantage of authenticating is that the consumer has fewer data fields to complete as the bank already has access to that information.) People interested in BMO products and services can make appointments as early as four hours out from scheduling them online, while the data request integrates with an employee's Outlook account.

The appointment booking feature, which BMO built in-house, recently debuted at its sister brand in the U.S.: BMO Harris.

Despite the strong usage of the tool at Bank of Montreal, Ammendolia says the tool has yet to affect branch staffing models.

But that wasn't the immediate goal for the tech anyway. The appointment tool, he explains, is designed to troubleshoot the bankers' version of shopping abandonment at a time when more consumers are researching products and services online. Indeed, he recalls BMO bankers fearing they could be losing sales leads to competitors. Getting an appointment booked while a person is researching products lets the bank better retain the prospect or cross-sell to him, he says. Plus it improved the then-existing BMO experience that required a banker to call a person back to set up an appointment, Ammendolia recalls.

A few lessons learned — and potential adjustments in BMO's future – include: let people make appointments with specific bankers (should there be no conflict with HR policies) and provide content in the confirmation emails that tells the customer what to bring into the branch.

Looking ahead, Ammendolia also identifies video meetings as one way to tackle the goal of converting more online sales leads into customers.

"There's an opportunity to provide additional options such as setting up a phone or video conferencing appointment, instead of needing to go to a branch," says Ammendolia.

Mary Wisniewski is a reporter for American Banker and Contributing Editor for Bank Technology News

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