November 30. 2013 1:14AM

Credit union brings 'dialogue banking' to branches

New Hampshire Union Leader

Bellwether Credit Union Vice President for Sales and Marketing Nathan D. Saller in the lobby of the Bedford branch, with Member Services Representative Carly Hunt at her pod in the background. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

BEDFORD - The traditional bank lobby hasn't changed much since the days of the wild west. Customers wait in line to approach a counter where tellers stand behind protective barriers to accept deposits or dole out cash. At Bellwether Credit Union branches in Bedford and Nashua, there is no rope line, no counters, no cash drawers, no protective barriers.

Instead, tellers are stationed at individual kiosks or pods that enable them to get up close and personal with customers in ways that would have been unheard of in the days of the cash drawer.

It's called "dialogue banking," according to Nathan D. Saller, vice president for sales and marketing at Bellwether. "The service representatives are not chained to a counter," he said. "They can move freely about the lobby."

Bellwether introduced the concept when it built new branches in Nashua in 2007 and Bedford in 2011. In October, the credit union began to redesign its Manchester branch on Hooksett Road.

When that work is completed in late spring, "dialogue banking" will be in place at all three Bellwether locations. It was easier to build a branch from scratch with the new concept in mind, as was the case in Nashua and Bedford, than to remodel the existing branch in Manchester, said Saller, since customers will have to deal with inconveniences like temporary teller stations and alternate entrances while the work is underway.

But according to Saller, the inconvenience comes with a payoff. "The feedback from members has been great," he said of the Nashua and Bedford offices. "The first time they come in, you get that deer in the headlights look because it's just not what people expect a bank lobby to look like. But they enjoy the contact. Because we don't have that barrier, we have a less encumbered situation. We can stand shoulder to shoulder and look at the same computer screen with a member if we need to."

As part of the transformation, Bellwether, which has existed in one form or another for 90 years, is also retraining its front-line personnel to act as either teller or customer service representative. "We have blurred the lines between the two," he said.

In the traditional banking model, customers conduct routine business at the counter with tellers, but need to wait for the attention of customer service reps, whose offices line the walls, for more complicated transactions.

In dialogue banking, financial service consultants staff the kiosks and can handle everything from cashing checks to processing loans.

"You come in for a routine transaction and might start a discussion that evolves into something larger," Saller said. "At which point you're not being handed off to someone else, you're not wasting time waiting, and you don't have to tell your story all over again."

If a situation requires more privacy, the bank employee pulls a laptop from its docking station at the kiosk and takes the customer into a private office. At the center of each kiosk is a souped-up ATM machine, which Saller called a "cash recycler," that's used to process all deposits or withdrawals.

Era of experimentation

The venture into dialogue banking at Bellwether is part of a wave of experimentation in the banking industry, which has historically not been known for its innovation, says Stephen Beck, founder and managing partner of cg42, a Connecticut-based business consulting firm that recently completed a survey on consumer sentiment about banking.

The survey revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the banking experience. "Beyond the big concerns over fees and interest rates, there are a myriad of frustrations over long wait times in a branch, having to deal with lagging or dated technology, taking a long time to get a new requests processed," he said.

Bellwether is not alone in its efforts to transform the banking experience into something more similar to the most successful models in retail, such as an Apple store.

"Many banks and credit unions are exploring different ways to utilize their branch networks," he said, "bringing technology into the branch and attempting to create greater levels of interaction between front line staff and customers. We've seen everything from iPad deployment to cafe-style models."

Beck is convinced from his research that banks of all sizes need to work on improving the customer experience.

"This is not a big versus small discussion," he said. "This is about who will actually put the customer in control, and give them the service experience that is often promised in advertising and communication, but so rarely delivered."

Saller believes a small credit union is well-positioned to deliver on those promises. The company was born as an employee credit union for Bell Telephone workers, and was known as the Telephone Credit Union of New Hampshire until 2005.

With only three branches, 30,000 members and $380 million in assets, Bellwether could well live up to the dictionary definition of its name: "Any entity in a given arena that serves to create or influence trends or to presage future happenings."