Retail banking may sound like a plain-vanilla business, but it has gotten a lot more complicated and sophisticated over the past few years. Customers don’t go to their local bank branches to deposit paychecks anymore and get free lollipops. Instead, they are demanding cash-management products for their businesses, investment advice for their retirement and the best rate on everything from mortgages to credit cards.
In this economy, cash-strapped banks are hungry for deposits and each customer is more important than ever. That is especially the case with the nation’s biggest banks they need to hang onto their customers even as they wrestle with the public outcry over government handouts, blockbuster bonuses, sloppy loan underwriting and tougher standards in the current environment. As for the small banks, they are pitching themselves to prospective customers as local financial institution that wants to pour money back into the community.
Over the past few years, the needs of the bank branch have shifted dramatically as customers do more of their basic banking on the Internet. Today’s bank branch has fewer tellers than in the past, but more personal and small-business bankers who have to know not only the ins and outs of the local economy, but can swiftly navigate through a parade of regulatory paperwork.
WHERE THE ACTION IS
Although it seems like bank branches have sprouted on every corner over the past few years, the job market is fairly tight. A slew of big-name corporate marriages in the past few months – namely Wells Fargo & Co.-Wachovia, JPMorgan Chase & Co.-Washington Mutual, and PNC Financial Services Group Inc.-National City – means that hundreds of overlapping branches will likely be shuttered within the next year or two.
Still, that leaves more than 90,000 bank branches in the U.S. that are owned by more than 8,000 financial institutions. The trouble for job-seekers is that although this has historically been a high-turnover business, more bankers and tellers are now staying put. “This is the first time I remember having this low a level of job openings,” says one retail executive who has been in the industry for two decades.
The jobs that are available aren’t necessarily the ones that you would expect in this economy. Even though the housing market is still deteriorating, there is growing demand for mortgage bankers at some banks. Part of that is because banks are no longer relying on outside mortgage brokers to originate loans. Also, falling interest rates means people are racing to refinance their mortgages and lower their monthly payments.
In these times, banks are also trying to pump up the revenue they generate from fee-based products, such as those that are pitched to wealthy clients. That means so-called private bankers are in demand, as are bankers who specialize in resolving troubled loans. Elsewhere, community banks that aren’t suffering from a raft of bad loans are trying to fill the gap created by their larger rivals which are scaling back lending activity.
It also doesn’t hurt to think outside the box – many banks now have outlets in grocery stores, for example, which can give employees some extra autonomy as opposed to a traditional branch.
Once you get your foot in the door of a retail bank, there are plenty of directions that you can follow. Some top bank CEOs say that they started as tellers or even janitors in the banking business and climbed their way up the ladder from there.
If you’re thinking about getting into the retail-banking business, a four-year degree, finance experience, and a good personality will help get you in the door. Retail banking is all about sales and customer service, so financial institutions are looking for employees who can pitch products and resolve disputes with a smile. And while banks embraced job candidates with pure retail-sales background just a few years ago, they have found that people who worked at the Gap or Nordstrom’s often don’t have the tolerance or interest in wading through the rafts of compliance paperwork that are required in the regulated banking industry.
It used to be that there was one clear career path in retail banking: personal bankers would become assistant managers, then branch managers, and then district managers. These days, however, branch managers are increasingly making the move to bigger sales roles within the organization, such as small-business specialists, or loan officers.
GETTING THE JOB
Since there is no such thing as “bankers’ hours” anymore, job candidates need to show “flexibility, versatility and a good sales acumen,” as one veteran puts it. Show a willingness to work on weekends and evenings; some banks are even open on Sundays. If you’re applying at a particular branch, scout out the neighborhood and get a feel for potential business and residential customers. Branch managers and loan officers typically pound the pavement in the area, and show up at local community events so get to know the community. If the area is experiencing a new round of financial distress because of a plant closing or bankruptcy of a local employer, present a couple of ideas that can address the problems that customers may be facing.