Could slowing branch traffic actually be good for bank investment programs? In an odd way, it is, say program managers.

Lower traffic is forcing banks to train branch staff in the art of making proper referrals, while pushing advisors to be more resourceful and proactive, they say.

Britt Woods, the manager of Fifth Third Bank’s investment program in Kentucky and Tennessee, expects branch traffic to drop by 20% this year, but he says he isn’t worried.

“It doesn’t worry me because we still have a client base. If we were losing 10% of our clients, then I’d be concerned,” he says.

Woods shrugs off the drop in volume because he trained his team of advisors not to rely on walk-in traffic but rather on relationships they established with personal bankers and branch managers. “The most successful advisors that I see control their calendar and they control their business. So they’re on the phone, they’re booking appointments, and they’re not relying on the walk-in traffic,” he says.

Woods urges advisors to be constantly on the phone with clients and prospects, challenging them to follow what he calls the “10 by 10 rule”: have 10 phone calls made before 10 a.m. He also encourages them to have a minimum of four appointments a day on their calendar.

Woods makes sure that he gives advisors the support they need, providing them with resources, such as the bank’s top 50 depositors list and its CD maturity list, on an ongoing basis. “I’m constantly in front of it,” Woods notes.

Paul Restante, program manager at Community Bank in DeWitt, N.Y., acknowledges the challenges of slowing branch traffic. Falling traffic industry-wide has greatly reduced the number of referrals from branches, which he says is bad news for advisors whose “lifeblood is referrals from foot traffic.”

The advisors at Community Bank, he adds, “completely understand that the game is different and that they can’t live or die solely on foot traffic referrals.”

In response to the new reality of lower traffic, Community Bank’s management team put an action plan in place to train bank staff in making and qualifying referrals. Management also had Restante work closely with advisors.

“I tried to work with the financial consultants to [help them] understand that their lifeline was going to reduce over the next few years. Just the simple fact that the foot traffic was decreasing meant that they were going to have less referrals regardless of how well we trained the bankers,” Restante recalls.

Restante worked with his advisors to help them segment their books of business and encouraged them to cross-sell as much as possible to their A- and B-list clients. He also trained them in getting qualified referrals from their existing clients and to work with lawyers, accountants, business leaders and other centers of influence.

“By getting them out there and forming those relationships, they’ve been able to supplement the lack of foot traffic through what I think are better and highly qualified referrals,” Restante says.

Leo Iacobelli, a program manager at ESL Federal Credit Union in Rochester, N.Y., has seen an increase in the quality of referrals even as the volume of referrals has fallen. “We have more quality referrals now than we did when the volume was higher,” Iacobelli says. “Sometimes, less is more.”

ESL Federal’s investment program has fewer but better quality referrals from bank partners due in large part to the bank’s push to migrate “transactional-type” or lower-margin customers to online banking. While the migration has reduced traffic, it has freed up branch employees who were once tied up with helping customers with routing banking tasks, such as balancing checkbooks and cashing checks. These front-line employees now have “more discretionary time to uncover financial service needs” and “dig in deeper” with customers, Iacobelli says.

With higher quality referrals from branch personnel, advisors spend less time with people without the means to invest and more time with people who truly have a need, Iacobelli notes. They also have more time to help branch staff become better profilers and lead generators.

Thanks to lower traffic, advisors also have more manageable calendars. Instead of days filled with back-to-back appointments, advisors now have only five to six, all with much greater potential, according to Iacobelli. This gives them more time to work on their existing book of business.

“It has made their day much more productive than what it was in the past,” Iacobelli says.

Indeed, the investment programs at ESL Federal, Community Bank and Fifth Third are no worse for the wear. Revenue from the programs is up at all three institutions, with Community Bank posting a 36% increase from last year. All three have added advisors last year, even as traffic swooned.

“Including what we’re going to add this year, we’ve increased by 50% over the past three years,” says Iacobelli.