Design Thinking is always user-centered: focusing on delivering an experience that is desirable for customers, in the best case “delighting” them. However, creating a unique solution with Design Thinking doesn’t always mean inventing a unique solution out of thin air. An important part of Design Thinking in the “Understand”, “Observe” and “Ideate” phases, discovering parallels with other situations. Thus, you can use solutions that already exist in other contexts to solve your unique problem.
Often the greatest innovations come from combining two things in a new way. For example, Gutenberg is credited for inventing the printing press, but he didn’t invent anything completely new out of thin air. He combined movable type with a wine press in a new way. The CEO of Umpqua Bank, Ray Davis, is the Gutenberg of combining an enjoyable retail and café experience with a bank.
In 1994, when Ray Davis was called in to help the struggling community bank, with around 40 employees and six branches. He immediately noticed that all banks offered the same lousy experience: bland, boring, forgettable. Most banks offer the same products at basically the same rates, too. If Umpqua was able to come up with a great product, it would be copied by the bigger banks within days. “So, I felt there was little or no opportunity to have Umpqua stand out with products,” Ray Davis wrote in his book, “Leading for Growth: How Umpqua Bank Got Cool and Created a Culture of Greatness.” What could he do to make the bank better?
“Why would somebody want to bank with us?” Would it be possible to create a bank that people want to visit? He decided to offer his customers the opposite experience of a typical bank. He envisioned the customer experience at Umpqua Bank as friendly, delightful, and memorable.
Reframing the Challenge
Where do people go to hang out?
He started to think about other types of businesses where people enjoy hanging out, including hip clothing stores and Starbucks coffee shops.
They were all retail locations, where people bought products. He was selling products, too. Not coffee and shirts, but financial service products. His bank was, in fact, a retail location.
By redefining Umpqua as a retailer, he was able to take advantage of the strategies that stores use to get customers inside, advise them, display products, sell products, and even encourage additional unplanned purchases. Umpqua locations are still referred to as “stores” and not “branches” as is common in the banking industry.
Then, he determined he needed to find out more about what makes a retail space enjoyable. So, he sent seven hand-picked associates to retail locations all over the country. They observed the signature in-store shopping experience at Restoration Hardware, Gap, Nordstrom, and Disney stores. They even observed how hotel guests interact with the space of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. He told them to use their senses to examine how things look, smell, and feel so that they could use their observations to develop new ideas for the bank.
Umpqua bank started their prototype by building one retail location. They also utilized techniques that have been proven successful in other retail settings. They allocated $4 million for the prototype, which was a hefty sum for such a small bank. They even hired a designer and consultant known for her work in the retail sector, Charlene Stern of Stern Marketing. She encouraged Umpqua to further adapt the practices of leading retailers and avoid falling into typical bank industry norms.
He hired sales associates from other retail locations. He rejected people who had worked as bank tellers in favor of employees who had previously sold pants at well-known department stores.
“We had a computer café with free internet access and our very own Umpqua brand coffee, an “Investment Opportunity Center” for investment type products, and a “Serious about Service Center,” that offered general information and had a phone that connected right to my direct line. Anyone with a problem was invited to call the CEO,” said Ray Davis.
Customers would enter the new location and ask sales associates, “Is this really Umpqua Bank?” Yes. It was. The CEO, Ray Davis, also made himself available to take calls. There was a direct line in the service center that anyone with a problem, both employees or customers, could use to call him. By gathering direct feedback, he was able to understand key issues and consider changes or additions to the new retail concept.
Results: It worked!
Within three years, Umpqua Bank became number one in their community bank market. They have expanded from six branches to more than 263 stores across five states in the USA. Small community banks and big players in the banking world visit Umpqua Bank to discover the secrets to their success.
They found various creative ways to create an inviting retail environment. They extended beyond only free coffee and they also offered their customers free chocolate coins to snack on. They found ways to display financial products with physical representations, like bags and boxes, and physical books on tables and in display cases in the store. They also sell gift cards, just like any other typical retailer. In their retail locations, they also have illuminated signs that say “Surf, Sip, Read, Shop and Bank”, the customer experience the bank provided – but welcoming, like what customers would expect from a retail store.
Umpqua Bank had created a unique space for banking and community. The local customers were engaging with the bank through their new marketing activities, which directly affected their day-to-day lives. Children were able to learn about money through Umpqua bank’s “lemonade stand kits” in 2007. Umpqua also branded ice cream trucks and drove around residencies, offering people free ice cream, with recurring events such as an open call for the design of the ice cream truck in 2014. Residents can enjoy yoga at their Umpqua bank in the morning before the store opens.
Development is an ongoing process. Once a product or service is tested and launched, it needs to be continuously adapted to the changing needs of the customers. Design Thinking is an ongoing process, as users’ needs change, new solutions must be developed.
1. Adjusting to the Digital Age
When Ray Davis took over in 1994, ATMs were starting to become more popular. The internet existed, but mainly through a dial-up modem. The first smartphones and online banking apps were still 15 to 20 years away. Davis capitalized on the trend of the internet by offering free internet access in his first Umpqua Bank stores. Umpqua Bank has continued to stay on top of tech trends and take a page from the Apple Store playbook.
Digital technologies have since advanced to a point where people no longer need to visit a bank to purchase a financial product. The actual purchase can be easily made online. However, consumers still have a desire for information and advice to answer questions. At the same time, a traditional bank experience is very pressured and forced when meeting with the tellers.
Focusing on a customer’s desire for a 1:1 experience outside of traditional banking was Umpqua’s human-centered solution to the digital age. While the bank space and culture invite all people to come in, a “universal associate” is present to answer any questions in finance. With iPads, the company’s internal wiki, it provided a similar casual but professional approach as the bank version of the Apple “Genius Bar”.
2. Adjusting to the Urban Age
Many millennials have chosen to live in or near city centers and walk or bike to shopping areas near their homes or workplaces. Thus, Umpqua started opening smaller “neighborhood stores” in 2006. In these stores some menus display local events in the community and a “Discovery Wall” that displays information about Umpqua products with printers, so customers can print the information they want. These neighborhood stores also provide computers for public use, free coffee, and events.
The smaller size offers greater flexibility in terms of possible locations and they cost less to open and run, as compared to a larger bank. The size of these stores is around 90 to 140 sq. meters (1,000 and 1,500 sq. ft.). A new “neighborhood store” only takes 45 days to open, compared to six months for a standard bank branch. Strategies of how to open a store quickly were also taken from the playbook of Starbucks.
And How is it Doing Now?
Umpqua’s effort to make the customer experience friendly, delightful and memorable has taken over since 1994, even to this day. They listen to their customers’ changing needs and iterate their solutions adjusted to the needs. This human-centered approach to banking has proved its strength through time; In 2022, beyond having 400 stores across five states in the USA, Umpqua bank has been ranked the 12th in Forbes’ 13th annual America’s Best Banks list.
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