Upskilling the South African retail banking workforce

The retail banking industry is in flux. So, what skill sets are needed to staff the retail banking workplace, and how can leaders put their teams in the best position to succeed?

Retail banking, an industry founded on stability and tradition, is in the midst of a transformation. Retail banks worldwide are rethinking their business models in light of technological advances, the growth of online and mobile banking, fierce economic pressures, workforce downsizing, and increased competition from FinTechs whose streamlined service models appeal to younger customers.

As in many industries, retail banking will need to rethink the skill sets of its workforce to avoid falling behind the curve. To beat the competition, and to continue acquiring, retaining and servicing customers in the face of increased digitisation and on-going economic uncertainty, retailers need their employees to be agile, to be ready to learn and to be ready for change.

“The evolution of technology along with heightened customer expectations have created new pressure for the banking industry to deliver innovation in its products, services and customer service experience,” notes Lyndy van den Barselaar. Managing Director, Manpower South Africa. “Along with this comes a shift in the types of skills needed from those currently working and those looking to work in this sector.”

The Skills Revolution is hitting banks particularly hard. For retail banks still reliant on the traditional branch-banking model, time is running out. One expert offered the tart observation that bank tellers will be considered “the telegraph operators of the 21st century” when historians look back on this transformational period in the industry. Whilst this statement is undoubtedly alarmist, there is no denying that banking is changing, and employees’ skills need to keep pace if they are to satisfy customers and deliver growth for their organisations.

When individuals succeed, organisations win. So, how can retail banks make the most of their employees to avoid a declining bottom line? What skill sets are needed to staff the retail banking workplace, and how can leaders put their teams in the best position to drive success? Van der Barselaar suggests the following methods:

Combine high tech with high touch. It is highly unlikely that the retail banks of the future will comprise solely of a network of websites, apps, call centres, IVRs, and ATMs. Although voice recognition technology is already here, customers will always prefer to interact with another human being. Retail banking will remain personal to a great degree, but organisations must learn how to blend their personal touch with digital technologies. Despite over 80 percent of global consumers making use of digital banking channels, a full 60 percent, across generations and income levels still want and need a human touch in their banking transactions.

Consequently, leaders must ensure the technological capabilities and expertise of their staff are updated (more on that below), but must also focus on employees’ capabilities and willingness to build relationships with customers.

Engage and educate staff to be digital ambassadors. By nature, humans don’t like change and, whilst it might be tempting to think that all employees are on-board with the digital revolution in banking, this is not necessarily the case. One of our banking clients recently issued a tablet to every branch employee, with instructions to go forth and show customers—especially older ones—how simple it was to access the bank’s website. When managers checked back three months later, 40 percent of the tablets hadn’t even been activated. They were shut away in filing cabinets, untouched, because branch staff didn’t believe the digital age had arrived. In response, the bank created a program to engage and train staff in the whys and wherefores of digital banking. Today, you can arrive at any branch and see a staff member walking around, tablet in hand, eager to engage with customers. Digital ambassadorship has become the norm—but it took a deliberate initiative.

For instance, in an effort to step up its digital transformation and innovation strategy, “Standard Bank has signed an agreement with the international Digital Skills Academy. This aims to deliver training, digital product development and provide industry experience to the academy's international BSc programme participants in South Africa,” ITweb (2016).

Prepare front-line staff for advisory roles. Whilst using an app to pay a bill or check a balance may be simple, the complexities around other aspects of personal finance, such as mortgages, pensions and financial planning, can be a cause of confusion and concern for many customers - and can’t always be dealt with online. In recent years, many branch banks have slashed their roster of personal bankers in a cost-saving move. The downside is a decline in financial counselling capabilities, leading to less effective product/service promotion and slowed revenue growth, as well as a decrease in customer confidence. Many banks are finding success in providing coaching to managers and assistant managers on how to initiate and manage complex financial discussions. The managers, in turn, bring this knowledge back to the branch where they coach staff on having deeper discussions with customers.

Update the softer skills. In addition to increasing their expertise around mortgages and financial planning, many front-line staff need help with the softer skills involved in building personal relationships with customers. Going forward, staff will need to know how to problem-solve to analyse customer needs or challenges and to find suitable products to fulfill them; translate complex financial concepts and jargon into simple terms that consumers can understand; and collaborate to work successfully with colleagues across all channels in an integrated team focused on solving customer issues.

Embed career conversations into the culture. As part of the Skills Revolution, employees will have to nurture their own “learnability” in order to stay relevant and employable in the banking industry. In a career-oriented culture, the individual, the manager, and the organization are all accountable and engaged in ongoing skills development. When employees feel comfortable having robust conversations with their managers about career pathways, they are in a better position to develop skill adjacencies that enable them to move into new positions and help the bank stay competitive. In turn, banks can leverage talent already in place to reduce skills gaps, whilst ensuring they have the right staff in the right roles, improving their competitive outlook and reducing attrition.

The digital age is here, and retail banks must act now to ensure they are equipped with the right workforce to help them navigate this period of fast-paced transformation. Do your people have the necessary attitudes and capabilities? How can you identify the high potentials and future leaders? “Through a combination of assessments, coaching and individual development, leaders can accelerate employee time-to-value, improve talent mobility and enhance organisational performance - increasing bottom-line and future proofing their business for whatever changes lie ahead,” concludes van der Barselaar.