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No Universal Roll-Out for Universal Associates

By W. Michael Scott, President / CEO at FMSI

This article originally appeared in BAI Banking Strategies.

With the continued accelerated adoption of non-branch channels such as mobile and the web, banks are facing the fact that branch traffic may not uptick anytime soon, if ever. This reduction in traffic not only results in lower transaction volumes but also reduces opportunities for selling – and the customer engagement that fosters account-holder loyalty.
In such a scenario, it isn’t cost effective to have personnel dedicated to a single role, such as teller, lobby service representative and/or sales associate. Often, it makes better sense to utilize universal associates (UAs), individuals specially trained to perform multiple roles in an equally competent fashion.
Unfortunately, this strategy is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach for either branches or personnel. A UA model is more complex to implement and manage than traditional staffing models. Furthermore, UAs command higher wages due to their skill level and ability to juggle many duties with ease, which requires banks to structure their UA programs for maximum efficiency. Doing so keeps reduced-volume branches viable and productive and can increase product penetration and customer engagement.
Changing Gears
The best UAs are more than staff members who can multitask; they are perceptive, enthusiastic individuals who thrive on variety. They enjoy changing gears, from processing transactions to building customer relationships and selling products, and they aren’t happy doing one thing all the time.
Employees like this help management reduce total branch labor cost by consolidating multiple roles into fewer employees. UAs can be used exclusively to staff volume-challenged branches (other than the management function) without compromising the need for competent sales and service. They also can be shared by branches even if each branch has a different resource need. And the extensive knowledge and training of UAs, paired with their in-depth understanding, often makes them more perceptive and better able to build relationships with customers and close deals effectively.
With these factors in mind, UAs are best used where a branch has a predetermined need for their skillset. In other words, putting them to work effectively requires branches (and the bank as a whole) to have a well-developed UA strategy sufficiently supported by forecast-based scheduling. Without such an infrastructure, UAs may spend too much time in less-productive roles such as transaction processing. UAs are not “teller floaters.” That role should be filled by an appropriately paid employee, if a floater is truly needed.

No bank should blindly attempt to utilize UAs without first identifying the need. Many branches experience traffic fluctuations that may make them look like great UA candidates on the surface. Others may have account-holder profiles that make it obvious that UAs would be beneficial. In neither case should the branch drop its traditional model and embrace an all-UA model.
Rather, bank management should evaluate the entire branch network for the applicability of the UA model. It’s likely that some branches may be appropriate for broad-based UA implementation while others might need UAs only occasionally or not at all. Developing the UA program and scheduling it from a bank-wide perspective, rather than isolated by branch, is one of the keys to making this effort successful.
In our work with thousands of branches around the country, we have learned the following: 

  • Low-volume branches (those with fewer than 3,000 transactions per month) are generally perfect candidates for UAs. These branches are most likely to be struggling to fill multiple roles and service customers effectively without overstaffing. Having qualified UAs onsite enables these branches to meet service and sales needs and to justify the UA’s higher costs. A UA-only model may work with these branches.
  • Mid-size branches (those with 3,000 to 10,000 transactions per month) can utilize UAs as “chameleon” team members, switching nimbly from volume to non-volume roles. In this scenario, UAs are especially valuable to fill-in during busy periods. However, in these branches, scheduling and program design must be sufficiently robust to avoid the UAs being used inappropriately.
  • High-volume branches (those with 10,000 or more transactions per month) generally use labor resources most efficiently with a traditional model of tellers and platform staff. With that said, banks that implement automation technology such as cash recyclers and video tellers to reduce or expedite personnel-based transaction processing may benefit from UAs.

Once the bank has determined its target pool for UAs, it can begin building its UA strategy and implementation framework.
Up to Task
Absolutely pivotal to your success with UAs is to ensure they are up to the task, as well as sufficiently capable, trained, incented and scheduled, and that management and line personnel understand their function and importance.
Take candidate selection.If any current employees are cross-trained and/or show exceptional promise, they may be good candidates for a UA position. Hiring from within can be a great motivator for other employees. However, don’t be afraid to bring new personnel to the role, while letting staff know that they can still be eligible, later on. Mental flexibility, love of change and other attributes are more important for the UA role than years of service at the branch.
Extensive, interactive and engaging training is very important with UAs and this expense should be considered part of their resource cost. Elements of training should include not only sales, service and processing training, but also education about the bank’s sales and service challenges, opportunities and goals. Training in disciplines such as sales tends to wane over time, so “refresher” courses, idea-sharing among UAs in special brainstorming sessions and other learning mechanisms, can also be beneficial.
Incentivizing UAs not only to meet production goals, but also to build their capacity and resiliency, can be a real boon to your program. Set expectations and incentives in advance, and have a sales manager or other appropriate manager meet with them on a quarterly basis to discuss changing goals and revise action plans. To keep these talented individuals excited and mentally flexible, banks should also ensure sufficient assignment and task rotation.
Even with UA target banks identified and UA resources being prepared for their tasks, banks are still left with the daily questions of who to use where, and when. Banks must have a firm understanding of their traffic patterns and be able to use that data to accomplish forecast-based scheduling in order for a UA program to work effectively.

UAs should only be scheduled when and where traffic forecasts indicate their use will be appropriate. Whether the bank develops traffic analysis, forecasting and predictive scheduling capabilities in-house or outsources them, we strongly recommend them as a central component of the program.
Here are a few scheduling-related tips that will give banks added insight into “universal scheduling:” 

  • Management may find that resource exchange and/or sharing among certain branches will result in the most cost-effective utilization of UAs. Optimally, this approach includes demand-based scheduling across those branches, as well;
  • Keep traffic analysis reports as current as possible and do not hesitate to update schedules on a daily basis to achieve more effective resource allocation;
  • Give UAs (and for that matter, all employees) schedule retrieval via smartphone or other personal device, with email alerts if conditions change. This approach enables UAs to mentally prepare for the day ahead and not be caught off guard. This is especially important if you are engaging in resource sharing among branches;
  • Proactively utilize idle periods in each UA’s schedule rather than spreading out time slots to fill the day. Use this time for sales-related activities such as coaching or outbound calling and appointment setting.

There is no doubt that UAs can improve workforce optimization, help control branch operating costs, increase product penetration and promote customer engagement. Whether they actually achieve these benefits depends upon effective program execution and scheduling.
In many cases, a phased-implementation plan, possibly with limited trials with properly trained UAs, will increase management and staff comfort and promote better results. Although FMSI recommends taking a bank-wide approach to evaluating UA candidates, we in no way recommend a bank roll out this resource, bank-wide, without careful evaluation and planning. Such an umbrella approach could end up being a resource-wasting nightmare.