Citi closing branches early Saturday to improve customer service training

By Candice Choi, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Citi closing branches early Saturday for training

NEW YORK — Citi is closing its bank branches a few hours early Saturday to train workers in providing friendlier customer service.

The mandatory training session is part of an effort to create a “warmer, friendlier feel” at the 1,000 or so Citibank locations across the country, said Brad Dinsmore, who heads Citi’s retail banking unit.

Branches will close at 1 p.m. in their respective time zones. Select branches in California will close at noon. The locations typically close between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. in most regions, with some open as late as 5 p.m.

Citi’s first-ever national training day comes at a time when banks are struggling to build customer loyalty in the face of growing online options.

“When you look at retail banking, most banks have similar products,” Dinsmore said. “At the end of the day, what customers really want is good service.”

Yet an internal survey of Citi customers last summer revealed the bank fell short in that key area. In particular, customers cited inconsistent service from the bank’s various departments.

As a result, part of Saturday’s training will focus on how to help customers navigate the bank, whether they have a question about a credit card, mortgage or savings account. More broadly, however, the four-hour training session will teach workers how to make an emotional connection with customers, Dinsmore said. Workers will take part in role play scenarios and watch a series of videos, one of which is themed, “Engaging Hearts and Minds.”

Citi’s training day is part of an ongoing push to improve service. In the past year or so, the bank has expanded branch hours in select cities, sometimes by as much as 40 percent. Branch renovations were also stepped up in the past two years; the company plans to open a model location in New York City’s Union Square neighborhood in December.

The focus on personal relationships may seem counterintuitive at a time when customers are relying more heavily on online transactions and making fewer branch visits. But customers nevertheless value having a branch nearby, said Bart Narter, who works in the banking group of Celent, a research company.

“When you start dealing with more complex issues, that’s when you want a branch to go to,” Narter said.

The vast majority of Citi’s 10,000 workers are expected to attend the training session at one of 58 off-site locations. Alternate sessions will be made available for those who can’t attend. The bank’s call center workers were trained under a similar program early last year.

Citi says the training day was inspired by a similar event held by Starbucks in 2008. The coffee chain shut down its stores for three hours on day in February of that year as part of a back-to-basics tutorial for 135,000 workers at about 7,100 stores.

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