Banks push to make customers more welcome

A Citibank employee helps a customer Thursday at Citibank's new high-tech banking center in New York's Union Square. The branch offers free WiFi and 24-hour customer service assistance.

NEW YORK -- The personal touch is making a comeback.

That old-fashioned habit of stopping in at your local branch is being encouraged again as the banking industry looks to put the spark back in service.

The push to cozy up to customers is part of a strategy to compete in a radically changing marketplace. Most notably, a battery of regulations signed into law this year will sharply limit the credit and debit card revenue that fattened industry profits in recent years.

To recoup some of those lost billions, banks want to squeeze more from each customer. That means convincing them to sign up for a wider range of services, including mortgages and wealth management.

And customers are still more at ease making major life decisions in person.

It explains recent moves by the industry's biggest players:

--Citi: On Thursday, the bank had a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its first flagship location on a busy corner in New York City's Union Square neighborhood.

With leather couches and soft lighting, the airy space resembles a modern hotel lobby and has a private seating area for premium customers. It also offers free WiFi and 24-hour customer service assistance via video in the ATM lobby.

Additionally, hours at select locations were expanded in the past year, and pay for branch managers is now tied to customer satisfaction surveys.

--Bank of America: The nation's largest bank -- and one of the largest in the Charleston region -- will add mortgage, small business and investment specialists to select branches early next year.

The aim is to gauge how they can help attract more customers.

Personal bankers also are being trained to spend more time with customers.

Bank of America wants to diminish the frustrations that can stem from its size. Customers who have problems that can't be resolved immediately in the branch are now issued a tracking number so they know the matter won't be lost.

--Chase: The bank is continuing to expand its branch network by 400 locations to 5,600 in the next two years.

An emphasis will be on mortgage, investment and small-business specialists who meet with customers one-on-one.

The focus on branches remains a gamble at a time when customers are rapidly migrating to online and mobile services for everyday transactions.

Customer visits to the average branch are down by 20 percent since 2000, according to the research firm Celent.

Still, more than half of major banks expect to maintain or add to their branch networks.

Bank executives said that's in part because the branch is a literal point of entry; it's still where the vast majority of account openings take place.

Most customers also still visit branches, even if less frequently, and are comforted knowing they can get live help if needed.