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Universal Associates Model Produces Gains and Challenges

August 30, 2016

This article originally appeared in Credit Union Business.

By Meredith Deen, President of FMSI

In its first year of implementing the universal associates model in staffing branches, Community First Credit Union of Florida is already reaping benefits but uncovering a few challenges in optimizing this approach as well.

On the plus side, training frontline staff to deliver on a full range of member service needs dovetails nicely with the design and technology transformations planned for its 18 branches, and scheduling is becoming much more efficient. Even in these early stages, the universal associates model has enhanced retention and widened the hiring field, says Jimmy Lovelace, VP/Branches for the $1.3 billion credit union ( with 302 employees serving 112,000 members.

Community First did work through a “learning curve” before settling on the best approach for retraining existing branch staff as universal associates, and the credit union continues to study how best to evaluate member service and sales performance.

The decision to implement this model grew out of the work of the Member Experience Committee, which includes representatives from across the organization, in responding to member feedback calling for quicker assist times and wider service availability in all branches. “We were looking for a solution that matched up with the data on declining branch traffic and what members were saying in terms of changing service preferences, and the universal staffing model seemed to make the most sense,” Lovelace says.

The first step in that direction involved training tellers as universal associates, but issues associated with upgrading skillsets, finding candidates willing to make the leap, and arriving at an appropriate pay and benefits structure were complicated, he notes. “What we did find is that if you cross-train member service reps in teller functions, you get more lift and a better service experience for members.”

Training MSRs to handle teller transactions has made scheduling for peak times more efficient, and counter to the experience other financial institutions have reported, Community First has seen a boost in production rather than a decline.

“The assumption is that when you combine two previously distinct functions into one job, you get half the production on both sides, but we combat that by giving universal associates a share of the branch goal as if they were sales associates,” Lovelace explains. “At a branch with four employees, the shared branch goal for sales is divided by four, so that everybody has a piece of the loan volume goal and everybody has a piece of the membership goal.”

Transforming branch design

In addition to its new staffing model, Community First has begun to reimagine branch layout and technology, beginning with its two newest facilities, which feature more open designs replacing the traditional “bandit barrier” with teller pods and cash recyclers for an atmosphere that is “less transactional and more interactional,” Lovelace says. The new branches also feature DBSI’s “Expert Nearby” video conferencing centers equipped with scanners, digital finger pads, and other technology so members can consult on demand remotely with mortgage and business loan officers and, in the future, investment advisors.

The real traction for the branch redesign and universal associates model is in combination, he suggests. “The promise is that when members come through the door, any associate can help them with whatever they need. That is more conducive of the branch of the future—and of the type of interactions we want our members to have with our staff.”

“For us, the journey toward universal associates has accelerated our branch transformation,” he adds. “Now with two branches operating fully with universal associates, we’re able to transform our existing branches much more efficiently.”

Other advantages Community First has seen in deploying universal associates include:

  • More responsive and flexible scheduling. The credit union relies on FMSI’s staff scheduling and Lobby Tracker software to monitor teller assist time, transition time, and idle time, and project staffing needs based on those metrics “to make sure we have the right people in the right places at the right times,” Lovelace says. “As we move to more of a retail model, we may see shifts from 10 to 2 and someone coming in just for two hours a day so we can be more responsive to member preferences. We could have a branch staffed with one teller, one MSR, and a universal associate who splits her day with another location.”
  • More efficient staffing. “If we had tried to open our new Riverside branch under the traditional staffing model, we probably would have needed to hire an additional two FTEs in addition to the four FTEs we have today,” he notes.
  • More effective career paths. As universal associates, employees have opportunities to continually enhance their skills by taking on diverse and increasingly complex member service interactions. Retraining as universal associates was a natural path for senior tellers who had been coaching less experienced colleagues, especially with a reduction in staffing at smaller branches that eliminated the need for a senior teller position.
  • Higher retention. Early evidence shows that universal associates are more likely to stay with the credit union than tellers and member service reps, Lovelace says. “That helps us meet our corporate goal of 80 percent retention across the board.”
  • Higher engagement and less idle time. The combination of more efficient scheduling and a wider range of duties has reduced idle time. “We don’t look at it from the perspective of ‘These are people who are just standing around,’” he notes. “We look at it from their perspective: ‘These are people who would prefer to be doing something with their time.’ They’re much more engaged when we give them something to do.”
  • A bigger hiring pool. “A good universal associate is someone who deals very well with people, deals well with change, and has come from some sort of production or retail environment,” Lovelace says. “Our best talent is coming from places like Publix, Chick-fil-A, or big-box retailers and electronic stores. It absolutely changes the range of where you can look for new employees.”
  • Quicker onboarding of new staff. Community First previously scheduled four to six weeks for new employee training. But with the universal staffing model, new hires get two weeks of training as tellers using new branch technology and then spend a few weeks on the job before returning for another two weeks to hone their skills as universal associates. “At the end of each of those training periods, they have new levels of proficiency, which allows the branch to operate more efficiently,” he says.

Doing much more with less

With declining transaction volume, Community First has become more targeted in identifying high-potential branch locations, where the credit union can position its facilities as community hubs, even offering meeting rooms equipped for plug-and-play presentation devices.

“We’re trying to find ways to get people to come to branches for the right reasons, and the universal associates model provides added flexibility in the size of the branches we can build and the types of communities we can serve,” Lovelace says. “We can do more in a branch with fewer staff so we can leverage where we go with our branches more strategically.”

For example, in its first five months, the Riverside branch built a deposit base of $1 million serving almost 200 members. Branches in high-visibility locations also offer a billboard effect to help build the brand, especially among prospective members who choose their financial providers based on brick-and-mortar proximity—even if they never enter the branch.

“We have to help our members understand that the real power in going to branches is the face-to-face interactions,” Lovelace says. “That’s the journey we’re on at Community First, looking for ways to leverage the technology so we augment the personal experience without replacing it.”

Gaining buy-in

An ongoing challenge in implementing the universal associates model has been identifying and addressing employee concerns. “There’s a natural fear about ‘Is my job going away?’ That’s one of the biggest hurdles we’re working on,” he notes. “We emphasize that we’re repurposing jobs in closer alignment with member needs. We haven’t lost a single associate in this shift to the universal model and branch transformation, though it may impact how we hire in the future.”

Identifying the key metrics to assess job performance is another work in progress. The scorecard for a universal associate evaluates an equal blend of sales, service, and operations through transaction data, new accounts and account balances, assist times, operational errors, and the development of a transactional survey to gather “voice of the member” feedback on service quality.

Under its new staffing model, Community First has moved away from measuring teller referrals since universal associates are expected to sign on members for new accounts and loans rather than passing them on to someone else. The branch management team is still working through how best to measure and reward frontline staff for productive member interactions.

“The question that’s out there is: What’s the true cost of interaction?” Lovelace says. “If we frame this up from a marketing perspective, we as an industry spend $140 to $240 attracting a new business checking account. How does that translate to what the cost per interaction value is? Universal associates cost a little more but add value in new accounts opened. Current models don’t factor that in.”

“But once we’ve identified those key performance indicators, the FMSI tools we’re using will allow us to configure the data according to the metrics we’ve identified,” he adds. “That’s what you want in a good tool—something you can adapt to your needs, especially when you’re dealing with something as transformational as universal associates.”


Meredith Deen is president of Alpharetta, Ga.-based Financial Management Solutions, Inc. (FMSI), which provides financial institutions with business intelligence and performance management systems for efficient branch staff scheduling and lobby management. She can be reached at


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