“I’m sorry, where’s the bank?” Keith Cahill chuckles as he recalls the most common question of first-time customers when they enter one of his bank branches. Nevada is the test market for Occasio, a new kind of banking model for Washington Mutual, Inc. (NYSE:WM), the $220 billion banking company headquartered in Seattle.
Banking is one of the more traditional businesses in how it handles its customers, how the buildings look and the kinds of services offered, said Cahill, regional first vice president of Nevada. When Washington Mutual expanded into Southern Nevada in April, 2000, opening five new branches simultaneously around Las Vegas and Henderson, “We tried to do something different, something innovative, exciting and state-of-the-art,” he said. Banks have learned that only the youngest professionals do the majority of their banking online. Most customers prefer access to the newest technology, but want the comfort and convenience of dealing directly with personnel who can speed things along and handle the paperwork. “This is an effort to make technology more human, rather than make people more technological,” Donna Oppenheimer, president of the company’s consumer banking group, recently stated in Financial Times.
Customers walking into Washington Mutual are finding the best of both worlds. A concierge greets patrons at the door, then guides them to the most appropriate bank employee, who is cross-trained to perform a variety of financial services, including taking a deposit, filling out a home loan application or establishing an IRA. The whole experience is designed to make customers feel they are entering a retail environment, both visually and functionally. All employees are dressed in bank-issued Dockers and button-down shirts so that staff can clearly be distinguished from fellow patrons. Lighting is brighter, the design is more open and teller windows have been eliminated. Instead, banker and customer stand side by side at “teller towers” so account information is clearly visible to both. Deposits are counted, then inserted through slots into a secure mini-vault inside each teller tower. A teller cash dispenser automatically dispenses withdrawals. Since there is no vault or accessible cash, employees don’t have to spend time balancing their drawers and, “we have had no attempted robberies, despite the fact there were 13 to 14 bank robberies per month in Las Vegas last year,” said Cahill.
Roving employees are equipped with “e-tellers,” hand-held Palm Pilots that increase the ability to quickly serve customers during high volume times. If customers do need to wait before they are helped, some branches offer buzzers similar to those issued by restaurants. Instead of waiting in line, patrons can browse through the retail section for a piggy bank for Junior, a financial book on home buying or retirement; or play a video game with their children in the kid’s play area.
The company is thrilled with the success of this retail concept, opening 100 new checking accounts per branch each month and garnering customer satisfaction ratings in excess of 95 percent. “We are far ahead of what we expected,” says Cahill. “We are currently producing numbers equal to branches open 50 years. Our Las Vegas branches have the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the company. Seventy percent of our customers have already recommended us to a friend.”
This kind of excitement translates into real dollars. Local branches have thus far generated $20 million in consumer lending. The mortgage loan division has produced record volumes as well, with nearly $80 million in mortgages during the month of April alone, giving Washington Mutual the third largest mortgage share in Nevada for the 12 months ending in March, 2001, according to Susan Wolf, senior vice president and area sales manager of retail lending.
It isn’t just service with a smile that draws customers. Washington Mutual offers free, unlimited checking with no minimum balance and free ATM use for its own and other banks’ customers. “Their bank may charge a fee, but we don’t,” explains Cahill. The average customer has more than four products with Washingtom Mutual, including mortgages, consumer loans, insurance packages, CDs, retirement, savings and investment accounts.
The bank is committed to opening 21 local branches in the Las Vegas area by the end of the year, and Cahill hopes to have 30 open by the end of 2002.