Future of banking here, now

IMAGINE the scenario. You walk into your local branch. Instead of being faced with a queue of people you are confronted by a gleaming steel obelisk.

The obelisk scans your retina. You are then directed to a comfortable lounge. The cricket is showing on the large screen TV. In the corner a businessman is checking his account details online. A harried shopkeeper runs in, deposits his takings in a box, receives a receipt for the transaction and runs back out again.

A customer service operator calls you by name and has all of your bank details on her screen.

Sound like science fiction? Some of these features are already available in Australia.

Competition from international banks and niche players such as Aussie Homeloans is forcing Australian banks to change the way they treat their customers.

The changes go beyond closing branches and trying to push people towards phone or Internet banking.

Everything from where branches are located to widening the services available within them is being reconsidered.

Gone are the days of banks only allowing business customers to transact business between 9am and 3pm. Bankers are even making house calls.

Some banks are setting up specific business, financial services or private banking centres to cater for their customers’ needs.

Automatic Deposit Machines – souped up Automatic Teller Mach-ines with a stronger deposit focus – are also part of the changing face of banking.

The ADMs are like night safes but setting them up does create some logistical problems for the banks.

National spokesman Brandon Phillips said the ADMs had to be put in locations that allowed secure access because they needed to be cleared more frequently than ATMs. Besides greater access to banking services, customers want to be able to transact their business quickly and want more information.

The number of products on banks has risen too. Where banks only offered simple loan and transaction products, they are now offering financial planning and various business products such as factoring and treasury.

BankWest head of distribution planning Garry Kukura said the bank had been forced to change not only what its branches looked like but also where they were located.

“Our branches had adopted a sterile, transaction focus. They weren’t customer friendly and weren’t showing our full services,” Mr Kukura said.

BankWest has opened two of its new branches, one in Garden City Shopping Centre, Booragoon and one in Hay Street, Perth. The branches have Internet access, offices for its financial planning arm Plan B, fast deposit boxes for business customers, a queuing system, a customer waiting lounge and an “exclusive” Gold Lounge for BankWest gold card customers. Both the customer lounge and the Gold Lounge have Foxtel showing.

Mr Kukura said the bank’s queuing system served a dual purpose. It directed customers to the right place and helped monitor customer traffic flows for better staff planning.

“We’re only using the bare minimum of the queuing system’s functionality. At the same time we’re still learning. Our first aim is to better manage customer flow in the branch,” he said.

The Gold Lounge is only available to BankWest gold card customers.

Mr Kukura said these customers were typically the sort of customer that would need an express banking facility.

He said the TVs had been added because there would be times when customers would have to wait.

“We chose Foxtel because of the CNN link that gave us access to financial information,” Mr Kukura said.

Mr Phillips said the hardest part of changing the way banks operated was getting customers to accept the change.

“You somehow have to make people comfortable with the change,” he said.

“Our Express Deposit system took a lot of cash out of the queues in branches.

“But while the customer might only be making a ‘small’ deposit, it is still a big deposit to them. They want to make sure their transaction is completed. Just telling them to put their cheque into the chute and walk away can be frightening for them.”

Like most banks, the National’s branch network is under review.

“We have more than 900 outlets – that’s more than McDonald’s,” Mr Phillips said.

About 10 per cent of all National banking transactions are done through branches but the network makes up more than 10 per cent of the bank’s costs.

“We have to make the branches do more. This not only helps our bottom line but gives the branch staff better career prospects because they have a wider skills base,” he said.

Commonwealth Bank WA manager Andrew Thorburne said the market place was becoming much more competitive.

“Every business wants to get quicker, smarter and better. Bankers have to do the same too,” Mr Thorburne said.

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