LOOKING GOOD: Devices that let consumers video chat with tellers will be featured prominently in SunTrust's branch of the future.
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First Look: SunTrust to Test Video Tellers in Select Locations

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Add SunTrust to the growing roster of banks modernizing branches by adding sleek new video teller machines.

The kiosks, which resemble flat-screen TVs more than traditional ATMs, connect customers with off-site tellers through two-way video, and can accomplish most everyday transactions, such as withdrawing cash and coins and depositing checks.

With demand for on-site tellers shrinking as foot traffic continues to decline, some banks see the video terminals as a way to reduce staffing costs while continuing to provide face-to-face service when it's needed.

The $175 billion-asset SunTrust is one of a number of banks now incorporating video into retail operations. Bank of America and BBVA Compass are experimenting with video tellers in some branches and drive-through locations and B of A is in the midst of rolling out video conferencing stations where customers can chat, Skype-like, with off-site mortgage, wealth-management and other specialists.

Community banks and credit unions are also testing video. The tech vendor NCR says that roughly 100 of its American clients are using two-way video. (Diebold and Wincor Nixdorf International also sell the technology.)

Many industry experts expect video to have an increasingly larger presence in retail banking as banks are pressured to cut costs and adjust to changing customer behavior. It can allow banks to shrink branch footprints or more easily expand into areas that are tighter on space, such as grocery stores. Video teller machines are also more sophisticated than traditional ATMs in that they can spit out change and smaller bills. So even when customers don't need to speak to off-site tellers they can conduct transactions that, at most banks, still can only take place at teller windows.

"We are giving customers the teller work," says Dave Martin, executive vice president and chief development officer at the Financial Supermarkets, an industry consulting firm.

SunTrust plans to roll out 35 of its Teller Connect machines by yearend. The kiosks, purchased from NCR, will be installed in a limited number of SunTrust's traditional branches, stand-alone drive-through stations and grocery store locations. Specially trained video tellers will work out of a call center in the bank's headquarters.

The newer branch models will come with a consumer perk: locations with video tellers will remain open until 8 p.m., up from 6 p.m.

Still, whether video will be the medium in which people want to interact with bank employees remains to be seen. Then there's the matter of how traditional tellers will react to the new devices and whether they will promote them to customers, say analysts. Some B of A employees, for example, have picketed the bank's so-called Teller Assist units.

SunTrust said it has no plans to cut jobs because of its branch tests and will monitor its new branch format to see whether and how customers actually use the machines to understand if the model is one in which the bank could and should scale up. "It's important to test and learn," says Brad Dinsmore, corporate executive vice president of consumer banking and private wealth management.

The video-equipped kiosks will be but one new technology featured in two of the bank's so-called innovation branches — one of which already exists in Atlanta and another that is expected to open later this summer in the Washington, D.C., area.

The innovation branches also feature technology stations where consumers can learn how to use the bank's digital apps and safety deposit box areas where a robotic system retrieves and deposits valuables.

The investments underscore the branch's continuing significance even at a time when smartphone-equipped people can deposit checks from their mini vans while listening to Beyoncé.

Indeed, banks across the country report their branches continue to yield the highest sales of any of their channels.

Still, consumers are using multiple channels to accomplish their banking needs. "Few people are monochannel," Niti Badarinath, the head of digital banking at U.S. Bancorp, said at a recent Digital Banking Summit hosted by SourceMedia.

For SunTrust, Dinsmore says the branch investment is one part of a broad strategy the bank has been working on to better meet client needs across all channels.

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