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The techniques of field research pay dividends at the bank branch.

Who says that liberal arts majors can't get jobs in the business world? Paco Underhill, "retail anthropologist," has had a 25-year association with the retail banking industry, studying the interaction between people and commercial spaces. Speaking at the recent BAI Retail Delivery conference in Las Vegas, he had the following suggestions for the bankers in attendance:

1. Seek innovation from comparable retail businesses. Examine how other retailers structure their store environments and customer relationships. When examining the teller line, look to the fast-food industry, which has demonstrated excellence in queue management. "If you want innovation, go to fast food," says Underhill.

For the platform staff, the comparison of choice is the drugstore pharmacist. "If they're taking care of physical health, bankers take care of financial health," notes Underhill.

The drugstore comparison is an apt one if you consider that people typically consult a pharmacist not just to buy medicine, but also when they have a need for practical advice from a live person. The same approach should entice people into the bank branch, suggests Underhill. "You're not selling products," he says. "You're selling into life-changing events."

Whether it's an engagement or a divorce, bankers are in a position to offer useful financial advice and a structured plan for managing assets through these changes. Despite the Internet - or perhaps because of it - it's sometimes hard to find a real person to answer simple questions: "How to buy a motorcycle, rent an apartment, bet on the NYSE," lists Underhill.

Are bankers in the business of providing such advice? Not yet, but they could be, suggests Underhill.

2. Watch the demographics. The fastest-growing household segment: people living alone. The fastest-growing family segment: fathers with children. "Only 40 percent of households have children," notes Underhill.

Increasingly, many communities in the U.S. consist of young, rich and childless citizens. "Is there a tribal membership that we can offer?" asks Underhill. "How do we do a better job of responding to the society that we serve?"

3. Know what kind of war you're fighting. Underhill compares modern-day marketing to modern-day warfare. "We are no longer fighting 20th century wars," he says. "We're in a 21st century bar fight, where everybody's competing for our customers."

Where the 20th century had its "visionary generals," the 21st century relies upon "empowered sergeants and captains," says Underhill. The implication is that technology deployments must be designed to support those troops.

But many banks still have a tendency to manage from the top. "We, as a culture, do an infinitely better job collecting data than we do using it," says Underhill. "Collecting data is easy - transforming it into tools that can affect day-to-day operations is a much more difficult challenge."

Furthermore, technology alone cannot solve the problem. "The easiest thing to change in a store or in a branch is its technology," says Underhill. But, he asserts, "Investment in technology and machines cannot overcome the experience of bad service on the floor."

4. Conduct major anthropology. To get a feel for the customer experience at your branch, do what anthropologists do: watch closely, Underhill says. He offers these tips:

- Measure all customer wait times.

- Evaluate sight lines at all points of the branch, including the parking lot. "Why isn't there a 'signage czar' that takes control of signs in the entire branch?" asks Underhill.

- Test whether customers can recall the messages you've been promoting.

- Measure customer satisfaction and link that to the in-branch experience.

- Understand the pathways and movements of a typical customer.

- Compare data across branch types and locations.

- Examine your furniture and fixture choices, and link them to branch performance. "If a banker sits elbow-to-elbow at the closing desk, it's a different relationship than face-to-face over a counter or at a desk," says Underhill.

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