At a time when bank branches are experiencing a redefinition due to the digital challenge, the attention to clients’ experience is a leading driver for many lenders to succeed in the market. French Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes presents a new branch concept focused on the "human factor". Valentina Romeo reports

To re-build the customer-bank relationship, many reports find banks can become much more customer-centric by leveraging vast amounts of customer data and further developing mobile capabilities to create more personal interactions.

In its attempt to successfully balance technological innovation with clients’ continued satisfaction without losing the human touch, French cooperative bank Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes has launched a new branch format in the city of Lyon, putting the customer-consultant relationship at the centre of its concept.

Sophie Debon, executive director of the Retail Network Development at the bank tells RBI: "Since the customer behaviour changed a lot because of the crisis, and because of digital and mobile, we do think branches are very important. It was also very important to think the way we welcome people in the agencies and the way we choose how to advice them."

"The strategy is that the local branch coordinates the customer relationship on all the channels and knows what customers want," she adds.

The first New Definition Branch from Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes is surrounded by multimedia technologies to ensure its customers a personalised approach to their needs, going from the dynamic display on the screens of the tablets to the interactive reception terminals.

Stressing the value-added features encompassing the independent spirit of the branch, Thomas Vallette, consultant at Backelite and partner of the project, says:

"The bank wanted to put the relationship between client and professional at the centre of the project. One of the differences is that now we have a big space (architecturally speaking) at the centre of the agency where people can use virtual software to discover the bank’s solutions and its products and services."

Many banks worldwide struggle to find the perfect branch design and location, and start to experiment various solutions to overcome the mobile banking takeover. For this and other reasons also related to costs and regulations, the presence and essence of bank branches is under constant threat.

However, the idea behind the New Definition Branch is to defend and enhance the value of the branch presence on a specific territory.

"We bet on the fact that the personal advisor and the agency will stay at the heart of the customer relationship and so it is very important to remain present physically on our territory via our agencies. We work on the meshing of our territory according to the demographic evolutions, but we do not question our physical presence on the ground," Debon says.

"Clients found the quality of the new agency much better than it was before. It has more than 40% of very satisfied customers for the services. We didn’t choose only technology in the branch, we thought about banking from an advisor’s point of view," she also adds.

In addition, Debon says the agency is going to become a coordinator of distant channels (internet and mobile) and an ambassador of all the channels of entry in connection with the bank.

The present-day futuristic branch

To differentiate themselves among competition is at the heart of Debon’s and her partners’ strategy. The customer-consultant relationship together with the specific "my on-line banking space" inside the branch are the core solutions provided by the bank.

"In the branch, customers must find things they don’t find on the Internet or on mobile phones. There must be a real added value, expertise, warm welcome and information, which customers do not have somewhere else," Debon says.

Interaction with technology and personnel is made possible through the use of tablets and screens, Vallette explains. The New Definition Branch provides three different digital screens: one displays information to the street, such as road traffic, train times, weather.

The second one is an interactive tablet used to welcome visitors into the bank: the customer can communicate through this totem tablet letting the professionals know that they arrived or that they want to set an appointment.

The third is more like a general tablet used to display products, and it is used to advertise to people and provide information on loans or insurance products.

Furthermore, Debon gives a detailed description of the role of consultants within the branch: "The person in charge of the customer relationship is a very competent advisor with excellent interpersonal skills.

"He or she has the responsibility of customer care from his entrance to the agency; he directs the customers in spaces, accompanies them on automatons and handles the simple requests. To tempt them to come to the branch agency, we have to organise small events and animations and not only appointments to sell them products and services."

According to the bank, staff at the new branch is made up of 12 people, while the other branches will have 5 professionals taking care of customers. "The difference between us and the other banks is that we really invest into the customer relationship and on training advisors," she clarifies.

"People can come into the bank just for pleasure and not only to buy products or to get advice," adds Debon, when explaining why the new bank’s branch is re-defined as a "boutique". She also says all the devices used in the branch have been designed to be more manageable and adaptable to different environments at all Caisse d’Epargne’s branches.

Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes is planning to deploy some of these new technologies in the existing 300 branches within the country. The bank is also expected to open 3 other new branches this year in the South East area of France following the same strategy. As Debon puts it, these branches wouldn’t be only technology-driven, but will also continue to work as small agencies and include other customisable tools.

Backelite and Prosodie-Capgemini have worked together on the design, construction and operation of three projects of the New Definition Branch. In particular, they developed the idea of the banking services screen, the reception terminal and the free-space applications on the touch screens and tablets.

Vallette gives an insight into competition: "Only one other bank has used a similar concept to Caisse d’Epargne’s, but their branch was used to present products more like an Apple store, and their goal was not based on the client relationship like ours. Now, we get a very big visibility on the market with this solution."

"We proposed many solutions to the bank and this was the most attractive one. We tried to use lots of ideas. We are also working on another project and we are currently putting all our ideas together to create something new," Vallette also reveals.

In the past few years, for many banks in France the contact between banks and customers has seen a shift from "physical" contacts to non-physical ones; 80% of all contacts in 2013 were, in fact, made via digital channels, with a mere 10% made at local branches. The challenge for Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes is to maintain their branches force, and enhance clients’ engagement.

Debon concludes:" We are convinced that the technologies are only a way to simplify the life of the customers and of the advisors and to strengthen the link between them, but they are not an end in itself.

"We did not want only a beautiful shop window. What will make the difference is the pleasure that our customers will have to come to see us that we shall measure by their level of satisfaction, by multi-detention of products and services, by the level of recommendation and by the sustainability of their relation with us."

In July 2009, Caisse d’Epargne merged with the BFBP (Banque fédérale des banques populaires) and became BPCE, at the time ranking as France’s second largest bank group as by assets, although has since fallen to a distant fourth.

The Caisse d’Epargne network reported a net income of € 1,723m for, up 4.8% year-on-year, for the first nine months of 2013.

Further third quarter results show that for the first 9 months of the year operating expenses increased by 2.4%, to €1,120m, leading to gross operating income of €591m and a cost income ratio of 65.5%, down 1.7 percentage points year-on year.

Caisse d’Epargne contributed €287m (47%) to the net income of BPCE of in the third quarter of 2013.

In September 2013, Caisse d’Epargne network launched the first intelligent digital bank safety deposit box, facilitating the automatic storage of documents.

As a part of its digital strategy framework, the box allows customers to automatically grouping together their administrative or commercial documents (invoices, bank statements, tax returns, etc.). According to the bank’s latest results, over 145,000 digital safety deposit boxes have already been opened at the end of October.

Caisse d’Epargne at a glance

– 17 Caisses d’Epargne
– 25m customers
– 4.7m members
– 4,219 branches
– Total customer savings: €359bn
– Loans outstanding: €197bn
– Q3 2013: +7.8% year-on-year active customer growth