It All Started with Shopping Carts ... Sometimes the Most Effective Branch Enhancements Are Little Environmental Touches That Satisfy Simple, Immediate Customer Needs. Take the Case of the Hallandale Beach, Fla., Center of the Bank of America. How Was the Institution Going to React to All Those Elderly Customers Pushing Grocery Carts into the Lobby?

Article excerpt

After buying groceries at a neighboring supermarket, elderly customers at the busy Hallandale Beach, Fla., branch of the Bank of America were rolling their carts into the financial institution lobby. While banking, the seniors wanted to keep watch on theft groceries and to protect their food from the hot outdoor weather. In addition, some leaned on the carts for support while they waited in the teller queue.

Bank employees observed these behaviors. A traditional response might have been to install signs saying, "Shopping carts are not allowed in the bank." But, managers approached the situation differently--by turning these customer "problems" into bank opportunities. First, the bank built a "cart corral." As customers entered the branch, they parked their cart in these spaces, which helped to keep groceries cool and under observation.

Next, the bank gave customers the option to avoid the traditional teller queue. Rather than waiting in line to do their banking, the seniors can now sit down in a "special services" area where a banker can handle both theft teller and platform needs. Since they no longer need to stand In line, the seniors have less incentive to bring their carts along for physical support.

These examples show how financial institutions can benefit by reshaping branch environments in response to ordinary--but pressing--customer needs. In this case, the bank succeeded both in enhancing customer experience and differentiating itself from competitors.

These simple environmental changes opened the door to further efforts. Including the creation of a larger bank program to boost customer satisfaction for the valued senior-citizen segment.

Early in 2002, Bank of America, which has its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., evaluated its 4,000 banking centers nationwide and learned that at over 500 sites, 50 percent or more of its customers were seniors. Concurrently, the bank's Florida centers were actively looking for new ways to differentiate themselves. The state branches wanted to enhance service and improve customer satisfaction continuously.

In Florida, the seniors market is growing faster than any other demographic segment. As the population ages, the rest of the country is expected to find itself in a similar demographic pattern within a few years. The current and future economic importance of the seniors market is enormous (particularly with respect to this segment's propensity for traditional, conservative bank products such as CDs).

Prompted by these population patterns, Bank of America's Innovation and Development Team launched a project to find ways to meet the special needs of the seniors' market. The goal was to create new branch environments that were safe and welcoming and that addressed both the physical and emotional needs of aging customers.

The team began with several months of research, including field feedback, in-market observation, customer focus groups and a general market scan (looking at what competitor banks were doing). Based on the initial results, a six-site test was launched. Each selected site had 60 to 80 percent senior customers. Three separate tests were conducted. Some sites involved "training only." Others had "training plus cosmetic changes" or "training plus environmental changes."

Learning about seniors' special needs

The training-only test began in January 2003. Associates were trained in two different areas: understanding the special physical challenges of the elderly and selling to seniors. The "understanding seniors" component was focused on teaching associates the sensory challenges of growing older. Associates "experienced" these challenges through sensory simulations that included walking with small, irritating objects (unpopped popcorn) in their shoes; reading while wearing sunglasses coated with petroleum jelly; handling marketing materials while wearing robber bands around their fingers; and conversing while wearing cotton balls in their ears. …