Bank of America branch manager Robert Barresi demonstrates new ATMs with on-screen teller Indira Celaya. Banks and other financial industries are looking to further collaborate with technology companies in the "Fin Tech" sector.
Bank of America branch manager Robert Barresi demonstrates new ATMs with on-screen teller Indira Celaya. Banks and other financial industries are looking to further collaborate with technology companies in the "Fin Tech" sector. - 

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.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark