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By Anson Lee  Karo Group

The Art of Transformative Thinking Brand building through branch building—the reinvention of banking An ATB Financial case study

Author: Anson Lee

Director, Customer Experience Strategy Anson has more than 13 years experience in branding and strategic management. With an education in computer science, communications and fine arts, Anson applies a unique combination of technology, business strategy and visual design to the strategic development and execution of creative concepts. Having worked on numerous high-profile projects in Canada and North America, Anson has become a leading authority on customer experience strategy and service design.

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Without any preconceived notions, how might we reinvent the banking experience for the customers and employees of a long-standing Alberta financial institution? It was a challenge that we, as designers who consider the full spectrum of customer experience, took seriously and with a lot of enthusiasm. This is a story about a design team’s dream come true, where a client embraces a challenge and takes a leap of faith in order to find a truly innovative solution. What else would you expect from a client whose motto is, “Where there’s a way”?

Research by immersion “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This riddle challenges us to think about the role of the listener in defining the existence of a sound. Similarly, brand perception is the result of a customer or user experience. So if customers don’t have an opinion, or cannot find relevance in what they perceive, what can be said of the brand? As brands compete for shrinking discretionary and required spending budgets, it is even more critical today to understand how brands deliver value. Unlocking how customers interact with a brand or offering helps us discover the ways we might modify their experience through the messages, environments and tools to better meet their needs and increase their loyalty, as well as their likelihood to recommend or consume broader ranges of products and services.

“How do we observe the formation of those perceptions and understand the mechanics of the brand as it is formed in the mind?” Reinforcing the notion that perception drives acceptance of a brand, we study the drivers of those perceptions. Models such as the Dubberly Model of Brand, as outlined in our paper Get It

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Together, describe the various facets of a brand and how they relate to one another. But how do we observe the formation of those perceptions and understand the mechanics of the brand as it is formed in the mind?

“Qualitative or exploratory research helps develop questions based on immersion into an experience.” One way is through quantitative perception research, using tools such as surveys. With large enough sample sizes, we can extrapolate the opinions of a greater community of people. And with the right survey design, a statistically valid model of stimulus and reaction can be formed. Quantitative research works well when we are reasonably certain about what we’re looking to learn. But what if we’re not so sure about what we’re looking for or don’t know the right questions to ask? In some cases, our subjects may not even know the answers themselves. As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This is especially the case when the solution may include new technology or processes. Qualitative or exploratory research helps develop those questions based on immersion into an experience.


Design ethnography, a qualitative technique, further pieces together what is often an evolving picture of customer experience by striving to understand how people live.

financial institution, ATB has 165 branches and 131 agencies, supported by approximately 5,000 associates.

In this paper, we explore how Karo used qualitative methods to develop a body of knowledge that became the springboard for a transformative design strategy and the results we achieved for ATB in reinventing the traditional customer experience in banking.

But by 2007, ATB was ready for a major transformation. While it had always distinguished itself from the big banks, it was time to remind the market of its roots of innovation and further distance itself from the now not-so-much bigger banks. ATB knew that a re-envisioning of its retail branches was critical to that transformation. It was time to be more of an innovator, less of a bank.

A time for transformation

The deep dive

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the first Treasury Branch opened in September 1938 in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Its first customer was Levi Smith, with a deposit of $5. In the 70-odd years since, ATB Financial (ATB), as it is now known, has proven itself dedicated to Albertans and Alberta. In its early days, ATB operated in smaller or more remote centres that bigger banks didn’t deem profitable enough, offering services banks didn’t, such as licences for hunting, fishing, and even marriage. In 1978, it launched its first mobile branch, Treasury Branch Mobile No. 1, which serviced northern Alberta. With a staff of two, the manager was also the driver. And in 1990, ATB became the first financial institution in Canada to offer telephone banking.

ATB came to Karo seeking a retail strategy that would help it take this leap—to develop what they termed “the branch of the future.” To fully immerse the team in retail banking, we started the discovery process with tours of 10 ATB branches, interviews with key corporate and retail stakeholders and reviews of existing ATB research data and other industry precedents. We took this information into an executive workshop, where we defined the baseline branch experience and identified areas for exploration and opportunities for shaping customer and employee experiences. Armed with this, client and design team members knew what challenges we faced and how we might address them.

Through Alberta’s boom times and busts, ATB has remained dedicated to its customers and employees, responding to changing times and people’s needs. It’s flourished as a result. Now the largest Alberta-based

From humble beginnings. The first Treasury Branch opened in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, 1938

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“…re-envisioning of its retail branches was critical to that transformation. It was time to be more of an innovator, less of a bank.” However, the banking industry presents some unique considerations. On one hand, its processes and artifacts are long-standing and deeply entrenched. Why is that? For instance, was there a place anymore for cheque writing stands or offices now under utilized due to centralization? On the other hand, the industry was undergoing some interesting changes, with banks around the world starting to shake things up. In Tokyo, we found one that provides safekeeping for objects representing its customers’ financial goals, such as travel books for that big trip they dream of. One retail-banking leader, Umpqua Bank, offers an Innovation Lab where its customers can play with new technologies. The variables and permutations could have been daunting. But we needed to keep our eye on solutions that made sense for ATB and its communities. To help us do that, we employed ethnographic research to better understand ATB’s customer behaviours in the context they take place. Design ethnography is a disciplined approach to first-hand field studies and observational methods of daily behaviour. Rather than asking what people want, it sets out to understand what they’re thinking, saying and doing. Ethnography

studies these patterns of experience and translates them into insights relevant to the development of a product or service. Growing in popularity among design firms as a way to develop empathy for the target audience, ethnography affords many different approaches to information gathering and can accommodate varying degrees of scope. It has strong roots in industrial design. Firms such as IDEO use it to study a range of experiences, from the everyday— observing grocery shopping to develop new shopping carts — to the highly specialized— observing hospital operatories to develop surgical tools. For ATB, our ethnographic research involved a “deep dive” at subject branches, customer intercepts and participation from branch employees. (see the box below) This straightforward yet complete taxonomy allows our design team to quickly and consistently record behavioural and contextual information. It also promotes collaboration among multidisciplinary design teams, with designers focusing on their own areas of expertise and then filling in the gaps to provide a complementary view. For example, interior designers report on employee flow, while interaction designers note how customers use their smartphones while waiting in line. To round out our findings from an internal perspective, recruited employees were given journals to record notable aspects of their interactions with customers and colleagues.

The backbone of our research was the A (x 4) methodology developed by Paul Rothstein, the late founder of Arizona State University DesignSpace. The codification scheme is as follows:


The people involved in the scope of the study


Things that people use or that exist in the environment


Behaviours, processes, goals and outcomes that take place


The physical and ambient characteristics of the environment

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Research highlights From our research, we concluded that the new strategy would be built on three pillars: • engaging customers more deeply and broadly • providing a best place to work • being relevant to the community When it came to its customers, ATB wanted to reverse the trend among banks of closing branches and pushing customers online. In contrast, it set out to move even closer to its customers. In its efforts to strengthen existing relationships and cultivate new ones, ATB needed to create a space that encouraged people to stay longer and do more, an environment in which they felt comfortable, relaxed and welcome. On the employee side, ATB sought a flexible workspace that addressed the needs of its diverse employee base. Not only did it want to attract and retain the best talent, it wanted to reduce turnover among current employees. Eliminating segregation between younger and more senior staff, and the silos that tend to form among teams, was another objective. Finally, it was important that each branch be relevant to the community it was located in. From its founding, ATB has been committed to the communities it serves. While those communities are significantly different today, and with different

Exploratory design research methods often lead to two types of findings: They can identify the low-hanging fruit that leads to straightforward design decisions – the non-starters and musthaves. The second kind of conclusion is more ephemeral. It results when observation articulates the previously unarticulated and illuminates themes that resonate as the solution. In our work with ATB, we experienced both.

“Success is measured by the number of times you can share a personal anecdote with a customer.” The contextual research for the Uptown 17th Avenue Branch, the largest of the three prototypes, included an inventory of businesses in the immediate vicinity to identify gaps in services. Incorporating services that were a logical fit with the ATB experience would help it connect to the surrounding businesses, reinforcing the community brand pillar. Within four city blocks of the branch, we found 28 restaurants, pubs and cafés. Clearly, installing a café — which many banks were doing to encourage lingering time and consequently increase exposure to transactional opportunities — did not make sense. We’d encountered our first non-starter.

needs, ATB’s intent remains the same. What form that relevance took remained to be determined. Ours was not to be a cookie-cutter approach. Based on this foundation, ATB asked us to roll out the strategy in the design of three prototype branches in Calgary.

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Key Points • one customer team • staged customer experience • community profiled • staff supported

Coffee and Community Concierge

Dream Centre

Concept drawing of lifestyle resources with community focus that led to the Dream Centre and community room.

Nonetheless, as we developed specific recommendations, connectivity emerged as the theme that inspired and informed the interior, service and technology design decisions that followed. One employee reported in his journal, “It’s really awkward to shake someone’s hand from behind the teller counter.” Our own observations noted that counter heights were barriers to older customers in scooters and for some shorter staff.

Tellers and personal bankers were observed to be “doing a lot of walking” given the distances between offices and resources. Visibility and interaction between tellers and personal banking staff were hampered by layout and traffic flow. To alleviate this, we suggested reinforcing teams by moving to a “one customer, one team” approach, where space was assigned by function, not entitlement.

“Success is measured by the number of times you can share a personal anecdote with a customer,” reported another employee. Similarly, we recorded instances where many front-line staff were engaged in both social and work-related discussions with customers.

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Concierge station at the Stampede branch (left) and the Dream Centre at the Uptown 17th Avenue Branch (right).

Realizing the vision Opened in June 2009, the Uptown 17th Avenue Branch embodies the strategic thinking and findings that resulted from our research process. In fulfilling the three brand pillars and the concept of connectivity, every decision made is focused on building and consolidating the branch’s communities — customers, staff and neighbourhood — and encouraging connections within and among them. So, gone is the lineup delineated by ropes and a strip of carpet. Instead, a concierge immediately greets customers — the position is intentionally a standing one, so this employee can float and be available to help customers. After identifying their needs, he shows them to the Dream Centre, the customer lounge in the heart of the branch. Essentially one big water cooler, the Dream Centre is where customers and employees can grab a coffee and strike up a conversation. (The staff room has no coffeemaker for this reason.) Customers can also browse the magazines, take advantage of one of the Internet stations or use the time to prepare their banking.

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While they’re doing that, the concierge has entered their information, including identifying features, into a queuing system and disseminated it to the personal banking specialists (PBS). The first available representative is usually quick to greet the customer, by name. It’s often to the customer’s surprise, both the personal greeting and the speed. (Research has found that the perception of this new arrangement is that it will take longer to get served, but that has not been the case.)

“Now, customers find themselves sitting alongside front-line employees, with no desk or computer forming a barrier.” Also gone are the teller counters where one customer stands feet away from the next. Now, customers enjoy a more personalized experience, finding themselves sitting alongside front-line employees, with no desk or computer forming a barrier. The new seated arrangement (as opposed to standing) is perpendicular to the banking hall


and provides a sense of privacy. This arrangement also makes it easier to have a conversation and underscores the idea that both parties are working towards a solution together. Here, customers tend to be more relaxed and likely to spend more time on their business. Customers with small children appreciate the play areas integrated into desk spaces, so it’s easier to stay focused on their banking while keeping an eye on children. Modular and flexible planning allows the organization of space by team structure rather than by more traditional roles. With the motto “one customer one team,” the new space sees a variety of to the benefit of the customer. If an ATB representative needs to call in a colleague while meeting with a customer, both space and technology have been designed to accommodate. This is what ATB calls the “warm hand-off,” where the customer is not deferred to another time and place to address what is top of mind. The customer doesn’t have to move, be rescheduled or go home and wait for a phone call. For everybody involved, it’s a seamless, efficient process. All PBS staff (or banking specialists) have office space tailored to building client relationships, with offices that are transparent and facing the banking hall, allowing them to wave and invite their customers in. It’s all in the name of encouraging staff and customers to experience more face-to-face interaction. Out of this can come larger-picture conversations, such as a person’s long-term goals, which can in turn lead to new business. The staff room also addresses the way people choose to connect … or disconnect. A smaller quiet space can be partitioned off from the main room. In it is a seating area and a computer so that staff can check e-mail, do their own banking or see what they’ve missed on Twitter — things they can’t do on the bank’s secure network. For employees who prefer to unwind a little more actively, there’s a large flat screen in the main area decked out with a Nintendo Wii game console.

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The branch connects to its 17th Avenue community in a few ways. One of the most interesting is the community room. Discovering an absence of copying, printing and courier services in the neighbourhood, we investigated dedicating a space to these services. Although we ran into logistical issues, we still wanted to offer something targeted to the branch’s main demographic of small business clients. Hence, the “community room” was born. Available for use by ATB clients at no charge, the space is getting lots of attention. Business clients and partners are using it, and the branch is working on a plan that will see the room enjoying greater use in the future. In the Dream Centre, a digital community calendar displays events happening in the area, and local businesses can display their own material along with the other reading materials. Even aesthetically, the branch shows its community colours. The tables in the community room are faced with photographs of the 17th Avenue area taken by a local photographer, and paintings hung throughout are also by local artists.

“The ‘wow wall,’ the 90 square feet of LCDs and rear-screen motion-sensitive projections…” Technology also plays a role in both expanding the branch’s communities and bringing them together. The “wow wall,” the 90 square feet of LCDs and rear-screen motion-sensitive projections facing the street, features a moving tableau of imagery and brand messaging to grab pedestrians’ attention. Similarly, the welcome wall inside senses movement. As a person draws near, it transitions to scenes of beach holidays, new homes and other aspirational imagery. Pedestrians and people entering the branch are lured in, both physically and emotionally.


The boardroom features a large screen and camera to provide video links to expertise beyond the branch. Here, customers have access to languages, services or specialties not available at 17th Avenue. Staff can also use it for training. The community calendar and digital posters in the Dream Centre provide targeted content that’s updated regularly. In the staff lounge, the screen used for Wii play is also used for employee recognition, updates from other branches and general industry news.

The Results As the branch of the future has become a reality today, has it met the expectations and goals that we set forth at the beginning of this journey? ATB’s own Client and Marketing Insights group conducted a two-month study to • Measure the impact of the branch redesign/ innovative design on customer impressions and intentions. • Understand any existing pain points or delight points for customers and associates. • Understand the impact of working in a redesigned branch on staff engagement. Using similar research techniques that were employed in the development of the design, the Client and Marketing Insights group used a combination of ethnographic observational and quantitative research to learn how the customer experience was altered. Their study also included ATB employees because the redesign affects how they perform—a key component to delivery of customer experiences.

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“In the survey, 87% of customers responded positively, citing the new design and service being a driver of their referral.” Overall, the reaction from customers and employees to the service and physical redesign of the Uptown 17th Avenue Branch was overwhelmingly positive. Key indicators, such as positive reactions to changes and the generation of word-of-mouth to family, friends and prospective customers were frequently observed. The words elicited from customers in response to the new branches include “innovative, professional, efficient, futuristic, friendly, personal, welcoming and customer-oriented” and were in line with our expectations. In fact, some felt so comfortable with the new environment, it was likened to a “favourite restaurant or bar.” Towards the ability of the new branch to help generate business through better relationships with customers, the study reports, “Associates feel that the new design facilitates a more one-on-one experience, both at the customer service stations and in personal banking offices, which are equipped with customer facing tools that allow for more conversation and more opportunities for associates to explore and identify customer needs.” The branch facilitates the simple, yet important ability to have a conversation. Overall, those surveyed revealed that they love working at the new branches, enjoy coming to work and “have fun while working hard.”


Research findings also point to areas where the next iteration of the branch of the future could be further improved or the service design refined. The new style of branch experience without the roped-off lineup was disorienting for some if the concierge was not immediately accessible. Initially, the perception of wait time was that it would be longer; however, 100% of respondents found the wait time “reasonable” and furthermore, it was found the wait time was too brief for customers to fully take advantage of technologies such as community calendars and touchscreens deployed in the lounge. Most importantly, ATB needed to understand how the new experience would impact the likelihood of repeat business. A simple, yet telling metric is whether or not customers would refer ATB to others. In a survey 87% of customers responded positively, citing the new design and service being a driver of their referral. More than half of customers surveyed also considered bringing more of their business to the bank. Interestingly, the under-30 group was found to be most likely to recommend.

Conclusion Reinvention of anything, large or small, is a tall order. With an open-minded approach, the inspiration for the solution is often right before your eyes. Give your design teams the tools and frameworks to collect and share what they see and hear and, as we experienced here, the ideas and results will follow. We would like to acknowledge the work of ATB’s Client and Marketing Insights group for their assistance with the pre- and post-design research that was critical to the success of this project. *

In summarizing the perceptions of both customers and associates, the research group concluded that “ATB has successfully created a retail branch that has differentiated itself, creating a more emotional connection to customers and associates. Internally, the Uptown 17th Avenue Branch in particular, has the potential to increase customer loyalty and to retain customers and associates.”

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The Art of Transformative Thinking: An ATB Financial Case Study  

Reinvention of the retail banking experience. In this whitepaper, Anson Lee explores the leap of faith taken by ATB Financial to remain inn...