Centralizing Branch Functions

One of the most valuable projects I’ve ever worked on was the Branch Auto Attendant application.

Citi was always trying to find ways to maximize the profitability of our brick-and-mortar branches.

Along this line, the back-office strove to assume responsibility (especially in CitiPhone) for as many functions as possible, thereby reducing the need to refer or transfer calls to the branches.

In the mid-80s, we developed these stand-alone CitiPhone Assistance Centers, small counter top or free-standing kiosks with an auto-dialer phone to contact CitiPhone, Sales, CitiMortgage & Citi Credit Cards.

Branch customers could use them to contact various areas.

In addition, branch staff would often “off-load” customers waiting at the service desk to these special phones.

When we purchased EAB/European-American Bank in NY in the late 90s, it became evidently clear just how much opportunity we had to take on more customer calls as former EAB customers would often visit their branches for “just about everything”, including many requests easily handled by CitiPhone.

This was a major reason why their branches were usually ~1/3 as profitable as the traditional Citi branches as a large percentage of branch staffing resources were involved in servicing customers.

It’s MUCH less expensive to have customers call CitiPhone than to visit a branch for the same exact inquiry or request…and incredibly more convenient & timely for the customer!

In an effort to maximize the revenue potential of ALL our branches, there were several time-and-motion studies conducted on exactly what branch personnel did during an average day. In addition, thousands of branch personnel were surveyed for their input.

When we looked at the results, we were shocked to see just how many man-hours were being devoted to “answering phone calls” & “handling clerical & record-keeping functions”.

Shocked big time.

And when you’re doing either of these things, that’s time taken away from sales-producing efforts.

We wanted to free up more capacity for the branches to spend valuable time with customers performing a full analysis of their financial needs (“CitiPro”) instead of just being order takers for account opening.

We didn’t want to “sell accounts”, but rather, take an overall picture of the client’s current & future situation to determine how we could assist with addressing their financial needs with a full array of Citi products & services.

In addition, we sought to increase branch staff availability to make outside business calls to organizations, professionals & small business owners either new to, or previously untapped in, the area.

But the only economical way to accomplish that was to redirect CURRENT resources being used to handle non-sales functions.

Years ago, before there was any type of centralized operations organization, EVERYTHING was done in the branches.

When my Dad worked for Citi, he trained this new hire at the branch at Flatbush & Church Aves in Brooklyn by the name of Bill Pastore.

Bill eventually became head of National Operations & my big boss for several years.

My Dad taught him how to reconcile customer statements, how to stuff the cancelled checks into the appropriate statements & basically, how to handle every possible customer inquiry/request as there was no CitiPhone, no Investigations Unit, etc..

Over the years, Citi began to build various Regional Processing Centers around the NY metropolitan area.

These eventually evolved into the USCC/U.S. Citibanking Center, with Check Processing remaining in the marketplaces (due to same-day processing requirements & the need to physically exchange checks with other banks & the Fed) & Statement Rendition centralized in Weehawken, NJ.

But there were still many clerical functions handled in the branches.

Managing Sub-Ledger accounts (temporary holding spots for unidentified & unresolved items before they “became” actual revenue items or expenses), D&F/Difference & Fine (when tellers didn’t “prove out to the penny”) and a variety of other functions were removed from the branches’ realm of responsibility & centralized in San Antonio.

As it turned out, a few hundred people were able to handle functions formerly manned by several times that numbers scattered across our 1,000 retail sites nationwide.

Then there were the phone calls.

A huge amount of branch resources (some here, a little bit there, still more over there) was devoted to handling phone calls that easily could’ve been handled MUCH LESS expensively in CitiPhone…either by our service reps or better yet, by our IVR/Interactive Voice Response application.

When you added up all the minutes & hours from all the different people in the branch handing incoming calls, it amounted to WELL OVER 1200 people!

They were providing callers with the branch location information…with their hours of operation…with simple account inquiries (balances, deposits, checks paid, etc.)…with service requests (stop payments, address changes, replacement Citicards, checkbook orders, photocopy requests, Investigations, etc.)…with account opening requests…and with many things that could be handled much more quickly & efficiently in a centralized operation.

And, often, with better quality.

And, to be totally honest here, CitiPhone itself was responsible for transferring way too many UNNECESSARY calls to the branches.

Instead of effectively probing the client for their TRUE request or need (so the CitiPhone rep could provide one-stop service without even involving the branch), they would often simply transfer the call to the branch as soon as the customer said “I want to speak with my branch!”.

We did TONS & TONS of training and communicating on this one topic alone, which was the branches’ #1 complaint about CitiPhone!

“Your job is NOT to answer questions!”

“Your job is NOT to fulfill requests!”

“Your job is NOT to do as you’re told by the customer!”

Rather, we CONSTANTLY taught & preached (🙋🏻‍♂️) & reinforced that “your REAL job is to ‘identify the caller’s TRUE need’, then take the necessary steps to meet & exceed customer expectations!”

“I wanna talk to Joey in my branch!” is NOT the customer’s true need.

The customer may BELIEVE that Joey is the only person that can satisfy his real need…but until we understand what he really needs .(from Joey), then how can we even attempt to help.

“I’m sorry, but Joey is probably busy with another customer now. I have all your information right here in front of me. How can I help you?”

We also found out all the different ways that customers used to dial their branches directly. (FYI, all customer statements & most letters contained CitiPhone’s numbers, not the branches’.)

We scoured every phone book in existence to see what phone numbers were being made available to the public.

We designated these lines as the branch’s “main number”.

Then, we “front-ended” all the #s with an Auto Attendant feature.

Basically, we “forwarded” the call to an Auto Attendant that would automatically answer the call (we physically removed these lines from all branch phone instruments), greet the customer (“Welcome to the branch on Avenue J & East 13th Street”), automatically provide the branch’s street address & open hours, then provide the caller with 3 options:

> “Press 1” for “immediate access to your account information”…this put the caller directly into CitiPhone IVR/Interactive Voice Response. They still could opt out, but would then connect speak with CitiPhone (not the branch).

> “Press 2” to open a new Citibank account…the caller would be transferred to our “Direct Bank” in San Antonio who would open accounts over the phone for customers. Not an issue for the branch re: “losing out on sales” as  the branch itself was credited for the sale & then “owned” the on-going relationship.

> “Press 3” or simply hold for the next available CitiPhone Representative (and the call would come directly to a rep, bypassing IVR). The rep would know that it was, indeed, a call originating from the Branch Auto Attendant & actually was notified of the exact marketplace & branch.

This program worked INCREDIBLY WELL!!!

The equivalent of well over 1,000 FTE/Full Time Equivalents were “saved” by the branches.

But these people did NOT lose their jobs (and neither did the people who previously handled clerical functions that we centralized in San Antonio). All these resources were reinvested back into the branches to concentrate on revenue-producing activities (sales)!

Overall, these two major projects cost the USCC fewer than 350 people…while well over 1,500 people’s worth of hours were now made available to the branches for revenue-sourcing activities!

The U.S. Retail Bank enjoyed significant increases in their overall branches’ profitability.

And even in CitiPhone, we would actively refer our own callers to CBOL/Citibanking On-Line, our home banking application & to IVR for a lot of their routine inquiries & needs.

These self-service functions are quicker to use & always available to the customer. And they cost Citi a tiny fraction of what a manned call or even a visit to the branch would cost!

And we regularly added more functionality to on-line banking to address & fulfill more types of customer requests (bill payment, statement viewing/printing, paid check viewing/printing, stop payments, address changes, investigations, checkbook reorders, etc.).

Not only were these self-service channels much less expensive than manned phone calls or visits to the branches, they were available 24 x 7 and regularly attained the very highest levels of customer satisfaction (as opposed to all other manned service channels, e.g. phone reps, tellers, etc.).

Our customer research & survey results constantly bore that fact out.

The main thrust of these efforts was to create a win/win situation for the USCC (more job opportunities) & the branches (more resources available for sales)…

…a win/win situation for the USCC (reduced operating expenses) & the customer (more convenience & improved satisfaction)…

…and a win/win for the bank (a reduced expense base overall while significantly increasing overall profitability).


Hopefully, this’ll spark some ideas you may have that are suitable for your company’s consideration & feasible for implementation.


Thank you as always for listening!

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