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Your bank teller will live inside an ATM

Bank of America branch manager Robert Barresi demonstrates new ATMs with on-screen teller Indira Celaya

Walk into the new Bank of America branch at 95 Wall Street and you’re struck first by what you don’t see. The New York location -- which the company calls an "express banking center," one of six opening by the end of the year -- has no teller desk with employees behind glass. There are some regular ATMs in there, and then there are larger ATMs, along with employees roaming about with touchscreen tablets literally strapped to their wrists, like pinstriped cyborgs on patrol.

It’s hard to imagine bank branches without teller windows and vaults, but the branches of the future could well have neither. And for some banks large and small, the future is now. They’re rolling out new technology so they can open smaller, more efficient branches. Banks say they can provide better customer service at lower cost, though fans of in-person interaction will be disappointed. Just as ticketing kiosks have reduced the time we spend face-to-face with airline staffers, new ATMs will rarify such interactions with bank employees.

The larger screens allow customers to video chat with tellers, enabling more complex transactions that baffle traditional ATMs. Bank of America branch manager Robert Barresi demonstrates what they can do with a check deposit. He taps the screen and soon the smiling, headset-framed face of Indira Celaya appears, offering to take care of our needs from her post in Jacksonville, Florida.

Celaya can make this ATM do things others can’t. Forget your bank card? No problem. Just place your driver’s license on the glass and she’ll verify it. Barresi deposits the check and asks for cash back. He needs a quarter to pay the parking meter and wants some singles. Soon a coin clinks out, a familiar sound, but one rarely heard at bank ATMs.

All this is easy for the able young woman on screen, but impossible for traditional ATMs, which are basically the equivalent of stupid toddlers with wads of $20 bills.

The transaction over, I interviewed Celaya through the ATM to find out what it’s like working through the ATM. She says customers are surprised.

“Some of them have this wow effect. They cannot believe that there’s a live person inside the ATM,” she says.

People often ask if she’s a real person and she answers affirmatively. She says it’s usually good for a laugh and serves as an icebreaker.

Some customers opted to stick with the traditional ATMs, even if it meant waiting in line while the unusual new ATMs stood empty. But many customers stepped up and gave the larger machines a whirl. Most appeared to really get a kick out of them. Banks like them too. They enable slimmer branches, which mean cheaper leases.

“We have 2,200 square feet. In our traditional centers, we have anywhere from 3,500 square feet up to 10,000,” explains Katy Knox, the executive in charge of Bank of America’s retail banking and distribution. “From a real estate standpoint, we can accomplish an awful lot in this space.”

And with cash secured in ATMs and handled by machine, security costs are lower and paperwork is minimal. Bankers get nervous when the question of saving money comes up. They start reciting talking points about tech being good for customers. But dismantling the teller desk is definitely bad for people who aren’t tech savvy or just prefer dealing with a real person.

There are still real people working with bank customers, even at the new high-tech branches. Those workers aren’t just shepherding the technically challenged through snazzy new ATMs. They’re really there to boost the bank’s bottom line.

“Instead of focusing staff on kind of those everyday things that in some ways these machines can do better, they can be focused on helping to sell products,” says Ben Deufel of CEB, which advises many banks. “You end up with staff that are doing work of more value to customers and more value in terms of the revenue produced for the bank.”

One of the companies benefiting from bank branch overhauls is NCR, headquartered in suburban Atlanta with roots in the late 19th Century as a cash register maker. Nowadays it makes everything from checkout scanners to ticket kiosks to ATMs.

The firm serves many competing companies, so all the gear on display in its Georgia showroom is generically branded NCR, so as not to favor one client over another. There’s a fake NCR grocery store to show off checkout aisle systems, complete with NCR plastic bags.

And of course, it has its own fake bank. Employees are used to strapping on headsets to play tellers. The ATMs spit out fake NCR money, delightfully colorful bills that bring a little Eurozone flair to the Deep South offices. But NCR is making real money as banks modernize.

“Banking innovation’s gonna change more in the next 12 months than it has in the previous two decades,” says NCR VP Brian Bailey, who works with banks on branch transformation.

That includes more mobile offerings, but even the most brilliant smartphones can’t spit out cash. For all the talk of mobile wallets, people still need that. NCR was eager to show off a relatively new offering, an ATM linked to smartphones. Customers can set up a cash withdrawal on their smartphones ahead of time. At the ATM, they use their phones to shoot a QR code and out comes the cash. It speeds up the transaction by eliminating the familiar card swipe and PIN entry.

Mobile links and video chats may be neat as ATMs go, but in many ways banks are just catching up. After all, many elderly people use Skype to see their great grandkids.

“We’re now just extending that same interaction to the banking industry,” Bailey says. “Older demographics down to Gen X and Y are very accepting of interactive video technology today.”

As bankers see it, they don’t need to pay for all those teller desks because even grandma’s moving on. Their customers will need to do the same.

The Strange Life of a Video Bank Teller ...

People will ask if you’re a real person. “They cannot believe that there’s a live person inside the ATM,” Celaya says, laughing. “I tell them I am a real person and you know, it’s very funny and it’s an icebreaker, I believe.”

Video teller experience is not required. It doesn’t hurt to have it, of course, but most applicants don’t, since the job has only recently come into existence. Bank of America is hiring people with experience as traditional tellers or as telephone customer service reps, since the new jobs are a combination of both skills.

You’ll be camera shy at first. Even though her background is in face-to-face customer service, Celaya says she was nervous at first about being in front of the lens. “That was the most difficult thing, how I would look on camera,” she remembers. She says she’s now over the stage fright.

You probably won’t run into anyone you know. Aside from metro New York, Bank of America’s other express branches with video teller ATMs are launching in Boston and Charlotte. But for now, the video tellers all work in Florida (including Celaya) and Delaware.

Mark Garrison: So you walk into the new Bank of America branch at 95 Wall Street and you’re struck first by what you don’t see. There is no teller desk with tellers behind glass. There are ATMs, which you’re used to seeing at a bank, and then there are the larger ATMs they have here.  Manager Robert Barresi shows off the technology at the branch, one of six similar ones opening up this year around the country. The ATMs are bigger because they have tellers inside. Not literally, of course. But on those larger screens, customers can video chat with tellers elsewhere, in this case, Indira Celaya in Jacksonville, Florida. She can make this ATM do things others can’t. Forget your bank card? No problem. Just scan in your license. And you can expect a sound rarely heard at ATMs. Barresi wanted a quarter to pay the parking meter and some singles. That’s easy for the able young woman on screen, but impossible for traditional ATMs, which are basically the equivalent of stupid toddlers with wads of $20 bills. But I still had a few questions for the faraway teller. So I asked her through the ATM, what it’s like working through the ATM.

Indira Celaya: Some of them have this wow effect. They cannot believe that there’s a live person inside the ATM. What do you tell them when someone asks if you’re a real person? I tell them I am a real person and you know, it’s very funny and it’s an icebreaker, I believe.

These slimmer branches mean cheaper leases. Katy Knox is the exec in charge of Bank of America’s retail banking.

Katy Knox: We have 2,200 square feet. In our traditional centers, we have anywhere from 3,500 square feet up to 10,000. So from a real estate standpoint, we can accomplish an awful lot in this space.

And with cash secured in ATMs and handled by machine, security costs are lower and paperwork is minimal. Bankers get nervous when the question of saving money comes up. They start reciting talking points about tech being good for customers. But dismantling the teller desk is bad for people who aren’t tech savvy or just prefer dealing with a real person.

Knox: We have a lot of customers that will look for the teller line and that’s why we have our specialists all around the floor with their tablets so that they can assist the customer.

At this Bank of America location and other companies’ neo-branches, staffers’ tablets are literally strapped to their hands, kinda like pinstriped cyborgs. Those workers aren’t just there to shepherd the technically challenged. They’re selling the bank’s products.

Some of the money banks spend modernizing branches ends up here, the suburban Atlanta showroom of NCR. It’s not a bank. Those are just employees faking one to show off their stuff. In the late 1800s, CR stood for cash register. Nowadays the company makes everything from checkout scanners to ATMs. VP Brian Bailey works with big and small banks on transforming branches.

Brian Bailey: Banking innovation’s gonna change more in the next 12 months than it has in the previous two decades and it’s really being driven by the consumers’ demand for more convenient services.

That includes more mobile, but even the most brilliant smartphones can’t spit out cash. NCR marketing exec Kerry Stanfield shows me a new product that’s trying to address that. Just like an NCR client pitch, there’s role playing. Say we’re in a cab and need cash in a hurry. I tell a smartphone app how much money I want and it shows the nearest ATM. When we get there, there’s no card or PIN needed. Basically all I have to do, I’m gonna take my phone’s camera and shoot this QR code. Ok, that sound means the machine knows who I am and here comes 20 bucks. Mobile links and video chats are neat as ATMs go, but in many ways banks are just catching up. After all, many elderly people use Skype to see their great grandkids. As bankers view it, they don’t need to pay for all those teller desks because even grandma’s moving on. You’ll need to do the same. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.
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