[updated from the original publication of May 18, 2020]

Driven by new and improving technology, an evolving regulatory landscape, and shifting marketplace conditions, banking – and retail banking in particular – is changing. 

Let’s leave aside all the possible implications and focus on training and onboarding. As the retail bank environment evolves, it requires employees who learn quickly, adapt to new circumstances, and think on their feet. It also requires flexible formal training and informal learning experiences that deliver expected results. 

In our experience, bank stakeholders speak plainly about their challenges – meeting their plan, keeping customers happy and coming back, and staying within regulatory requirements. It’s a puzzle, and in collaboration with their Training partners, they want – and need – to solve it. And because the pace of change is what it is, and the extent is so pervasive, the issue and solution need to be revisited regularly. In short, onboarding continues to be an exciting and rewarding puzzle to solve, and there’s so much to gain by getting it right. 

Onboarding remains critical to the evolution of the retail bank for at least two reasons. 

  • Employee performance directly impacts branch metrics.

  • Branch practices, roles, and accountabilities can be a moving target – meaning, there’s a risk of suboptimal training solutions wasting time, resources, and money.

New technologies substitute in-person interactions, affecting traffic patterns and altering the transactions historically done in a branch. How, when, and where customers interact with banks changes with each new technological advance and competitors one-up each other. Customers interact with the bank through numerous channels and increasingly expect seamless experiences. Retail banks run with notoriously tight staffing models, giving rise (at least in part) to the concept of the universal banker.

The work of Tellers, Bankers, and Managers (and Assistant Managers) is challenging, it’s difficult to predict customer traffic and transaction volumes, and the work environment is evolving; so consequently, effective, flexible onboarding becomes essential. In our view, the first step in solving the onboarding puzzle is to establish a clear understanding of the stakeholder expectations of the role(s), the work itself, and how and when the work is changing. 

With that understanding in place, the next step is to devise and enable a flexible learning strategy and structure that is modular, multi-modal, and supported by the organization’s learning ecosystem. Without an adaptable learning strategy and training, the likelihood of unmet business goals, poor customer service, job shock, and employee turnover increases dramatically.

What’s in the way of that idealized outcome? There are numerous challenges to address when onboarding retail bank employees.

Silos and Misalignment

Numerous departments exert control over the retail bank (e.g., quality, marketing, product development, risk, compliance, etc.) and can have different branch performance goals. In many banks, each department plays some part in defining what happens inside a branch. In our experience, the department’s role, extent of its oversight, priorities, and attention can shift, prompted by forces inside or outside the bank. Each function has metrics to monitor branch, team, or individual performance. When the stakeholders have harmonized expectations, they can successfully integrate their ideas for customer experience, transactional quality, fraud and risk identification, and revenue, among other outcomes. Often, however, there is misalignment about expectations and accountabilities.

When misalignment finds its way into training and onboarding, it often drives up complexity, making training longer and diluting its value and impact.

Running Lean and Blurred Roles/Responsibilities

One of the hallmarks of the retail banking environment is that it runs lean. Consequently, employees can end up with multiple, sometimes overlapping, responsibilities and blurred accountabilities. For example, a small branch may run with three full-time team members; a Teller, Banker, and Manager. In addition, sometimes there’s a part-time floater who steps in to cover breaks and predicted peaks in traffic. So other than some manager, sales, and risk/compliance responsibilities, everyone must be cross-trained to do almost everything. As a result, the potential burden on onboarding is hefty.

There may be six or more full-time team members in larger branches, which eases the coverage problem and allows for some level of specialization. But, in our experience, that doesn’t alter the fact that the learning strategy will need to be flexible enough for both situations – which often defaults to the realities and needs of the small branch.

Some banks pursue and install the universal banker approach where, by design, the individual does the work traditionally assigned to a teller (transactions) and a banker (sales). According to an American Bankers Association (ABA) Banking Journal articlemost banks have chosen to use or evolve toward the universal banker model. 

We focus on the performance expectations in all of these staffing scenarios and organize them in stages, focusing onboarding on the most appropriate initial work requirements—more on that in a moment.

Onboarding as a Function of Time Rather Than Performance

In many organizations, “onboarding” is synonymous with a length of time rather than a level of performance. As a result, new employees end up in a training environment for what stakeholders consider the right amount of time.

An exclusive orientation toward time in training can pose numerous challenges. For example, when oriented toward time in training as the metric, we’ve seen business stakeholders make arbitrary cuts to training time. Training teams do their best to adjust, but the overall result – other less time in training – doesn’t often improve. Instead, it can become a frustrating reinforcing loop for everyone involved, particularly the new employee.

Additionally, with limited time and without a performance focus, training often concentrates almost exclusively on knowledge acquisition, and a disposition to spend a little time on many topics emerges. When coupled with the next challenge, new employees leave the slow-moving training experience to start working and can often find it overwhelming, disorienting, and not at all like training.

It’s Difficult to Protect New Employees

When new bank employees start their job, it’s challenging to protect them from all the scenarios that could emerge in the branch. Because new hires may face and have to address all sorts of different work situations, onboarding training: 

  • Often covers too many topics, including the rare things that happen only once in a while

  • Only seeks to achieve knowledge acquisition

  • Often lacks authentic practice (or enough of it)

As a result, people leave training ill-prepared for the realities of the work, quickly draining their enthusiasm for the job.

We encourage business stakeholders to make difficult choices about what comprises the proper work for a new person and the right level of training – but when putting a metaphorical fence around new employees isn’t possible, designers have some tough choices to make.

Overcome the Challenges

The keys to overcoming these challenges are rigorous analyses and a structured yet flexible approach to onboarding that focuses on what the new hire must do on the job. In addition, modularizing the content into small enough chunks and using multi-modal delivery strategies can enable flexibility in deployment. 

In addition, the training must include enough realistic practice for employees to develop a level of performance that meets the organization’s needs. Instead of a trial by fire where the customer is the teacher, we recommend a learning strategy where instruction and learning come through engineered, authentic practice in a safe, low-risk environment.

Clearly and Precisely Define Performance Expectations

Unfortunately, onboarding training can’t cover every eventuality. What it needs but often lacks is an agreed-on definition of performance expectations for the new employee. As a target, these performance expectations guide training decisions and focus instructional decisions and engineered practice on the work’s high-priority elements.

One way to think about performance is that it is where all facets of the work intersect. For example, a Teller must simultaneously: 

  • Greet the customer, quickly build rapport

  • Talk to and listen to a customer

  • Authenticate the customer

  • Determine what the customer needs

  • Determine if its something the Teller can address or needs to pass along

  • Determine if there’s a referral opportunity

  • Follow the appropriate call-flow or decision tree

  • Interact with the system (including reading, searching, data entry, etc.)

  • Explain product/service features or benefits, describe a solution, etc.

  • Meet customer experience expectations

Each of those skills, and the required enabling knowledge, can be taught and evaluated discretely. Still, a better approach is to engineer realistic practice that combines most or all of them. It’s akin to having a scrimmaging at the end of practice – taking the opportunity to put it all together in an activity that looks like and feels like real work.

As mentioned earlier, technologies, regulators, and markets drive continuous, albeit uneven, change. It’s generally been wise to collaborate with stakeholders from functions such as retail leadership, risk, and sales to define what successful performance should look like at the end of onboarding. Under these evolving conditions, such collaboration is even more crucial. It needs to happen more often and delve deeper into how those changes affect the branch’s work. While some new work requirements will emerge, there may be a net reduction.

Undoubtedly, as the different stakeholders discuss the work requirements and recalibrate priorities for onboarding, there will be negotiations, give and take, and trade-offs. 

We encourage stakeholders to base those conversations on existing documentation and data, work with subject matter experts (SMEs) from each role (and make sure to have representation of the various branch sizes or configurations), and document a complete picture of the work that happens in the branches.

Understanding accountabilities in a branch is vital. Recognizing that assigned responsibilities may differ in different branches (based on size, location, the market segment served, etc.) is even more critical. 

Here’s a summary-level example of the onboarding performance expectations for a traditional teller and banker:

Teller: At the end of onboarding, the Teller will be able to perform the following low- and mid-level performance independently:

    • Conduct effective customer conversations: Greet, build rapport, authenticate, uncover needs (transaction and sales opportunities), and make recommendations and referrals.

    • Complete low- and mid-complexity transactions for personal and business accounts

      • Locate specific transactions for customers.

      • Make deposits and withdrawals.

      • Cash checks.

      • Process payments and arrange for transfers.

      • Issue cashier’s checks.

      • Process cash advances.

    • Complete assigned risk monitoring activities.

Banker: At the end of onboarding, the banker will be able to perform the following tasks independently:

    • Build rapport, determine customer needs or goals, identify and present solutions, and overcome objections.

    • Open, set up, and onboard personal and business customers and accounts.

    • Refer or seek guidance and observe complex personal and entity accounts.

    • Make sales referrals.

    • Complete assigned risk activities.

    • Asks for support (when needed) on more complex business and entity accounts.

In an organization with the universal banker role, performance expectations would include a combination of teller and banker tasks.

To fully flesh out the performance expectations, develop – or use the organization’s existing – documentation of the performance (including work outputs, essential tasks, behaviors, metrics, and gaps) and knowledge, skill, and competency requirements. Top performers can provide insights into their mental models and schemas. Collaborate with newer employees to determine what was challenging to learn, work tasks or processes that tripped them up, and parts of the training that didn’t help them.

Revisit Your New Hire Audiences

Another consideration for the bank is the makeup of your new hire population. For many roles, including the Teller role, the recruits are college students, recent college graduates, recent high school graduates, or experienced part-timers. While most may arrive without any banking experience, many will have some experience to draw on. As a result, the learning strategy may need to treat each community uniquely while driving toward the same performance targets.

Create a Flexible Learning Strategy

As you can see, we’ve placed a heavy emphasis on analysis. That’s because in our experience and opinion, once the situation is fully understood, the design essentially reveals itself. 

learning strategy should include a realistic perspective and an accurate performance description. From there, the learning strategy and training should:

    • Define performance expectations at various developmental stages. Allow for different starting points based on demonstrated experience.

    • Define what must be learned versus what can be accessed on the job.

    • Design onboarding to address the types of transactions you expect the new employees to handle.

    • Identify the resources available to support the employees’ work.

    • Evaluate the benefits of different training modalities and use them in combination, often seeking the least expensive and most flexible alternatives (for example, avoid eLearning and the associated build time and costs when the content change frequently – perhaps go for a job aid).

The retail bank environment is changing dramatically. The customer’s needs and desires are changing, as are service expectations. The move to digital banking is rapidly altering the number and kind of face-to-face interactions. However, the goal of the onboarding experience remains the same: to help new employees reach a performance outcome – fast. In that light, flexible, performance-focused new hire training is essential to a retail bank’s success.