A makeover for local banks

Don't call them branches, they're stores. And Stephani Schatz isn't a bank teller, she's a "universal associate," or a "rover" when she travels from store-to-store.

This is the language of Portland-based Umpqua bank – a lingo that seems both descriptive and strangely personal for a 56-year-old savings-and-loan. Once inside a neighborhood store, after wading past Internet terminals, local goods and a "discovery wall" – an interactive plasma screen television used in lieu of printed brochures – it becomes clear that a new way of banking has taken hold.

And not just at Umpqua. Whether you talk to San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank or iQ Credit Union in Vancouver, the story is this: bright new packaging, same fundamental banking principles.

Ray Davis, Umpqua's CEO, took the company's helm in 1994, when it had $140 million in assets. Today that has grown to over $8 billion and according to Lani Hayward, executive vice-president of creative strategies, the reason for this exponential growth was a reboot of the institution's image and delivery.

Taking cues from the hospitality industry, Umpqua training began focusing on customer service and remodeling their branches to be "comfortable, where people could just drink coffee, hang out," according to Hayward.

Umpqua also provides goods to buy – t-shirts, artwork and even CDs featuring local musicians – as well as creating signage which makes loans, mortgages, and the other type of investments seem more accessible to customers.

"We use our displays to make financial products seem tangible, to cause impulse buys," said Hayward, adding that impulse buys account for 60 percent of all purchases.

And Umpqua isn't the only financial institution to add bells and whistles to the game of savings and deposit. However, iQ Credit Union focuses more on development of online services and product offerings.

"Our website is the first one on the block to get lots of new things," said Kristi Cuffel, iQ branch manager, touting new technology allowing the bank's customers to make deposits from home.

However, new ideas and developments in banking don't always pan out.

"A few years back we had a savings promo called ‘Cash Cow,' which apparently references some really old TV show or something. Our customers were like, ‘What?'" Cuffel said.

Wells Fargo has also had its own blunders; especially a short-lived campaign in the mid-1990s to add post offices, coffee shops and dry cleaners to bank locations, according to Tom Unger, a spokesman for the company. It was soon decided that the extra space could be better filled by mortgage officers and wealth management specialists.

"If it works for Umpqua, more power to them. It's not the right thing for us," he said.

Whether they succeed or flounder, innovative marketing changes are almost always just a piece of a bank's overall strategy.

Most of iQ's growth came when its membership criteria changed from Clark County teacher to anyone who "works, lives, or worships in Washington," according to Cuffel. Bank deregulation during the Clinton administration paved the way for Umpqua and Wells Fargo to acquire various banks, sometimes doubling their assets while doing so, according to Unger.

"But we never rely on mergers or acquisitions. Even if you gain all those assets, you have to have to keep the customers," Unger said. "It always boils down to service."

Cuffel agrees, saying that for customers it is more about "service than services." According to Cuffel, the true mark of marketing success comes from allowing the everyday often-monotonous chore of visiting a bank branch to become less so.

Wells Fargo and iQ continually ask for customer feedback and Umpqua uses secret shoppers and anonymous feedback to quantify "return on service."

"Most banks offer the same things. Sure, some smaller banks can't offer all the same services, but the real differentiator is customer service," Unger said. "It is the best way to grow."