New Citibank puts emphasis on customer care

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Citibank's newest branch in Manhattan offers a bit of razzle and a bunch of dazzle to customers at the south end of Union Square, but the philosophy behind it isn't much different from that of smaller community banks that have siphoned customers away from large banks since the financial collapse two years ago.

Behind the snazzy new branch's iPad-like touch screens, its Wi-Fi-equipped lounge, its media wall and its video link to customer service is a conscious effort to create the feel of a community bank, said Billy Cho, manager of the new branch and a Citibank senior vice president.

"Every individual in this branch has been hand-picked," he said the day before Thursday's grand opening. All were trained in customer service, he said. Even the touch-screen panels around the branch, which take the place of brochure racks, are designed to allow bank employees to approach customers and talk to them, Cho said.

The tools may be high-tech, but the approach is similar to what smaller banks have been doing for years. Both Hanover Community Bank in Garden City and Gold Coast Bank's Huntington branch, for example, have similar customer lounges where people can relax or check wireless computers. And Bridgehampton National Bank's Patchogue branch even has a boutique coffee shop attached to it.

All about client experience

All the features of the 9,750-square-foot Union Square branch won't be replicated worldwide, but parts of them could be, Cho said. Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citi Group, said at the opening Thursday, "While this is the first branch of its kind in America, it won't be the last. We plan to build similar locations in our largest urban markets here and around the world."

In addition to drawing people in from Union Square's busy sidewalks, the branch's media panels also allow the bank to be paperless, Cho said. The branch promotes Citibank's online banking, too. He said the branch will serve people in the neighborhood and from around the city, noting that Union Square is a major shopping and transportation center.

A concierge desk in the center of the branch allows customers to seek guidance if they're stumped by the touch screens or media wall with stock quotes, or just want to cash a check.

"The client experience is top priority," Cho said.

The experience is less frenetic in the back, where an Asian-themed lounge for Citigold customers features couches, flowers, a marble-topped table and a conference room that allows video conferencing.

The branch, which has been open to customers since Dec. 1, has won praise online from tech-savvy customers on Twitter and Foursquare. Cho said he's encouraged by the start.

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