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December 16, 2015updated 04 Apr 2017 12:48pm

Santander rooting its branches in the future

The first ‘Smart Red’ pilot branch, created by allen international with Santander, has been launched in Madrid. With branches on the decline as digital and online channels rise, how will this new concept beat the odds and gain some longevity? Patrick Brusnahan investigates

By Patrick Brusnahan

The first ‘Smart Red’ pilot branch, created by allen international with Santander, has been launched in Madrid. With branches on the decline as digital and online channels rise, how will this new concept beat the odds and gain some longevity? Patrick Brusnahan investigates

Launched by Santander’s group chairman, Ana Botin, and Spain CEO, Rami Aboukhair, the main element of this concept branch is the delivery of a full financial service. This is to be accomplished through a strong promotion of self-service and online/mobile banking channels.

The branch was designed around the Santander values of Simple, Personal and Fair and aims for a relaxed, yet engaging, atmosphere for customers to come in and interact with relationship managers. This is the goal, rather than the branch existing for purely transactional means.

Santander has claimed that this pilot branch, the first to be unveiled, has already received positive responses from staff and customers alike.

At the launch, Ana Botin said: "We have aimed for the branch to revolve around the clients giving them quick access to all services."She also stressed that the new branch design is set to help the bank reach its target of 30 million digital customers by 2018.

Michael Allen, group CEO of allen international, told RBI: "Developing a universal branch concept for Santander worldwide was an exciting challenge for us. We had to take into account nine very different markets and various branch formats around the world.

"At the same time, we had clear strategic goals; the migration of customers to alternative channels through the introduction of online/mobile banking, all within a cost-effect implementation budget and design that embodies the brand proposition. The result is a new customer experience that provides greater customer service and enhanced digital engagement in-branch."

Digital EngagementSantander’s main idea with the new branch was to connect more digitally with its customers. Richard Benson, innovations director at allen international, told RBI: "That is not to utilise digital technology for the sake of ticking a ‘digital innovations’ checkbox, but to develop a communications channel that connects the brand, its products and service with the consumer."

Instead of replacing posters with digital screens, the space was designed to point customers towards digital touch points and present them in an easily accessible way.

These touch points include the initial modules in the Digital Banking Zone where customers can explore and enrol in online banking and mobile banking apps with the assistance of staff.

There is also a larger digital focal screen within the active waiting zone where customers can see digital messages explaining the bank’s products and service while they wait for a meeting.

Designed to integrate digital into the customer journey to ensure it engages and enriches their overall experience in the branch. The digital engagements are supposed to work side-by-side with improved face-to-face interaction with staff, rather than replacing it.

Benson added: "All of these are meeting clear objectives, which were to increase cross-selling, migrate customers more to self-service and also to enhance the whole ambiance of the customer experience."

Implementation costs and budgetsAs with all projects, the financial sector is looking at deriving value from the expensive physical channel. allen international’s brief was to make sure that any concept must be applicable to countries and regions across Santander’s entire global real estate.

As a result, a key challenge was to enhance radically the customer experience in branch through design, improving its performance and ecological credentials whilst also meeting very competitive cost budgets. Every crevasse of the branch had to be engineered carefully around value. This was to meet agreed budgets and to arrive at a design that is cost effective.

This has resulted in a design that is functional, but embodies value while maintaining appropriate and human warmth.

Benson said: "The concept we developed is a concept fit for global usage with country adaptation. Apart from that, there’s not much I can say at the moment. It really depends on the specific needs of each country in question."

Design elementsOpenness and transparency was a crucial objective for the concept branch. To tackle this, allen international stripped away a lot of traditional branch elements. Now gone are the blinds, curtains and graphic promotions covering up branch windows. This has led to a re-engagement with customers by actually enticing people to enter.

This projects an impression of simplicity, accessibility and transparency in the Santander brand and the way it interacts with its customers.

Interior design was created to project ‘confidence, dynamism and warmth’ through a stronger, more contemporary image.

To accomplish this, a re-think was needed. Everything was overhauled, including materials, interior palette, furniture and finishes. A reflective red perforated ceiling canopy and contrasting warm wood flooring combined to create an interior ‘envelope’. This is intended to elevate important services, such as full function ATMs, digital banking and welcome areas, and set a tone for the customer’s journey.

Branch tellers are hidden from view at the entrance to create a more relaxed tone. By not being immediately confronted with a branch worker, this creates a more relaxed advice and consultation experience, rather than preparing to be hit by a pitch.

With the customer and adviser meeting areas, allen international designed to make a working balance between privacy for the customers and visibility for the Santander consultants.

The goal is to create a space that is hospitable and focused on the meeting taking place; a direct contrast to back-office workspaces in which the customer might be intruding. This conveys a relaxed environment where consumers feel capable to discuss day-to-day needs and financial futures.

On this note, Benson said: "Digital engagement is a key thing and that works on two levels. There’s promoting to self-service, that’s not purely pushing customers onto self-service channels to benefit the bank, but to make it easier for the customers as well. It’s also a lot about how we present all the channels.

"That can range from multi-function ATMs where all transactions can be carried out through to promoting and enrolling people for online and mobile banking. It’s really about how to make it easier for customers to get faster, more convenienct service, in-branch and remotely, using the branch channel as a way to train and enrol."

He concluded: "That’s a key part of the digitisation process, but it’s also being supported by how we promote the brand and its offer. We put together a whole strategy for how we present the information about the bank and its services in a way that is easily digestible and equally memorable for the client so it’s making much more efficient use of the digital channel to do that."

The future of branches

Patrick Brusnahan: How do you see branches going on into 2016?Richard Benson: I think branch networks will continue to be rationalised by leading players beyond Santander. I think all banks realise that they have to look at their networks and make sure that they are in the right place with the right format. There will continue to be more work on formats to give the right proposition and the right services that their customers need.

As far as we’re concerned, the trends we see at allen international is that branches are here to stay. They are not going away; the format of them is changing. This may mean branches that are focussed more to the delivery of transactions where required and others that are focused on more advisory facilities, but the migration to faster more convenient self service facilities in branches will continue for cash management services.

I think we’ll continue to see a close examination of that format and how to deal with those transactional services. Incentives for an advisory capacity continue to grow in importance. More and more people are using remote channels to access their account so what do people need from a branch?

In many cases it is the face-to-face contact with financial advisers, no matter how they use their bank, before making large decisions regarding their financial future, they want to be able to meet someone and talk them through.

Alternative channel usages will continue to grow and we see more people using video conferencing and remote access for meetings in all walks of life. I still think there’s a sense of security for many knowing that you can meet a person face to face and have products and services explained at your level. Even though the networks are changing in shape and size, there will always be a role for that within most markets.

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