Jonathan Velline makes an impassioned case for maintaining a local presence in customers’ neighborhoods.

“If you think about the lives of our customers, they’re not shut-ins. They get out to work, to shop, to play,” said Velline, head of store and ATM strategy at the $1.69 trillion-asset Wells Fargo. “We’re part of a customer’s traffic pattern. We’re not just going to be a bank that’s at the other end of a call. We’re going to be in the community, we’re going to be volunteering in that community, investing in that community, and we hire from that community.”

Wells Fargo’s commitment to its branches stands out in an industry whose customers are shifting more of their banking activity to mobile devices and PCs, and where banks take an increasingly ruthless look at branch performance numbers. At the same time, the bank is building technology connections among its branches, mobile and online banking apps, ATMs and call centers, to route information from one to another. In that sense, the branches are becoming one spoke in the Wells Fargo wheel.

To be sure, there are a handful of other banks, although smaller, with a similar  focus. “A small, but growing number of banks are looking beyond simply migrating transactions to the digital channel and thinking about engagement,” said Bob Meara, senior analyst at Celent.


"Our stores are so central to the communities they serve... that we can’t imagine not having that,” Velline said. “Why would we take that away when it’s such a strong part of the value we’re delivering?”

It’s not that the bank is nostalgic, assures Brett Pitts, Wells Fargo’s head of product in the bank’s virtual channels group. “We’re very numbers-driven. We’re constantly looking at traffic and business results to make sure we’re making rational business decisions,” he said. “Rational business decisions still dictate having a strong physical presence; it’s still a significant competitive advantage for us.”

Pundits such as David Birch of Consult Hyperion and Brett King, founder of Moven, tend to look at bank branches as relics on the verge of obsolescence.

“I can see the point that there may be opportunities for different niches within the market and it is entirely plausible that there may be some demographics in some communities that can be profitably served through a branch network,” Birch said. “And I also accept that there may be less tangible reasons for maintaining branches in order to demonstrate physicality and pass on key marketing messages. However, given the sophistication of digital channels and customers’ obvious preference for the mobile phone as a primary financial services channel, I suspect that economics will dictate a trajectory around fewer branches, fewer standalone branches and more shared service points.”

Pitts and Velline say their branch-friendly stance is backed by numbers. In any given six-month period, 75% of Wells Fargo customers visit a branch. “They’re getting some value from it or they wouldn’t visit. We feel we need to follow the customer,” Velline said.

Even millennials can be found among the branch-goers, they say. “As an industry, we’re fixated right now on millennials,” Pitts said. “I think we overgeneralize what millennials want and how different millennials are from other types of customers. I think we over-ascribe things to age that may be about life stage. The majority of millennials are still forming their financial relationship with us in the stores.”

Apple and (reportedly) Amazon are setting up new physical stores, Pitts pointed out. “They are opening up physical locations because, despite where they started....there is value in a physical presence,” he said.


The digital bridges Wells Fargo is building between channels are apparent with the customer’s first visit to a branch. During what’s typically a 40-minute meeting (30 minutes discussing the customer’s financial needs and 10 setting up an account), the banker will set the customer up on a mobile app and make a mobile deposit if appropriate. The banker might also walk the customer over to an ATM to show how to make a deposit there.

Wells Fargo has considered letting people open an account straight from a mobile device, a feature other banks have begun offering. It hasn’t embraced that concept yet, but it has infused more technology into the customer’s branch experience.

Branch employees are equipped with tablets, which communicate with nearby ATMs. When a customer is doing a transaction at an ATM and runs into a problem, a team member is alerted on the tablet. Once the banker has helped the customer and taps “approve” on the tablet, the ATM dispenses the cash, or whatever else it’s supposed to do.

“There are all these connections between what we used to think of as separate channels,” Velline said. “Our bankers are really attuned to that. They’re not thinking about mobile being something else. They see mobile as part of the service they deliver.”

Another cross-channel technology the bank has built is customer event history, which lets phone and store bankers see a trail of events in the customer relationship, so they can pick up the conversation where the last interaction left off.

In its mobile apps, the bank is testing the ability to take a photo of the code on the back of a driver’s license to pre-fill account information. If that proves to be useful, it will be incorporated into other channels, Pitts said.

As Wells builds and refines its digital channels, the bank keeps its branches in mind. “Digital doesn’t supplant the store, it complements it,” Velline said.

“We’re seeing a lot of blurring of technology and experience, it’s becoming more of a continuum,” Pitts said. “We started years ago with light integration, offering texting and emailing receipts from the ATM to the mobile device, but there’s so much more we can do around transactions, starting things in one place and picking them up in another.”

Today the bank can track customer interactions across ATM, mobile, branch, and online banking through analytics, after the fact. It’s working on the ability to do real-time handoffs, so that, for instance, if a customer is using the mobile app and encounters a problem, he can click to speak to someone, and that customer service rep will automatically receive a record of everything the customer has just been through and be able to greet him by name and provide informed help.

In another example of “light integration,” the bank offers an appointment booking tool online customers can use to set up a face-to-face meeting with a banker.

And when it built remote deposit capture into its mobile apps, the bank used the same technology it uses for envelope-free deposits.

“That’s our ideal, building technology that’s truly a shared unit as we either modernize platforms or build new platforms,” Velline said. “Our tech teams are building it as a shared unit. For us, it’s not just the benefits of the experience it delivers but also [the ability to] build once and reuse.”

At the same time, it’s important to try not to reinvent the wheel. “It’s hard. We’re all under a lot of pressure right now to launch lots of features,” Pitts said. “We’re very competitive about getting new features out there and a lot of banks are starting to incur technical debt by launching quickly across a bunch of different platforms that, two to three years from now, are going to require a painful rationalization exercise. If you want to make a product change and you wind up needing to do it on three or four different product architectures, it gets really expensive and it slows your time to market.”

Penny Crossman is the editor of Bank Technology News.

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