When members walk into CU Hawaii Federal Credit Union's newest branch, they don't see a long counter staffed with tellers.
Instead, they are presented with a bank of video screens.
The tellers work from a room in the back office and communicate with members through two-way audio and video connections. Depending on their banking needs, members can submit checks they need to cash through a pneumatic delivery tube or receive cash from an automated money dispenser.
The reason for this high-tech teller system: efficiency and expenses, said Patrick Petti, the Hilo credit union's chief executive.
The video teller system, from Diebold Inc., lets the credit union use fewer employees to serve its members, Mr. Petti said. Tellers can greet one member while another member is signing a check to deposit and a third is counting withdrawn cash.
"The main reason is, of course, to save on staff salaries," Mr. Petti said. "It can reduce the number of tellers that you need."
Remote teller systems are one of several technologies financial companies are using to save money, improve service, and boost productivity at their branches. Bankers and vendors say tight branch budgets are prompting people to look for ways to boost teller productivity, better manage staffing requirements, and steer customers to the right people.
At one of CU Hawaii's new branches, three tellers juggle 10 walk-up and drive-through stations. Though the credit union has boosted salaries for tellers manning the video stations by up to 30% to compensate for their increased workload, Mr. Petti said it has cut overall teller expenses by $100,000 a year at a branch that began using the system in 2002. The remote teller systems cost $45,000 to $50,000 a branch.
CU Hawaii also installed the Diebold system at its headquarters, but does not plan to implement it at its four remaining branches. Mr. Petti said the technology works best in new branches, because members who are accustomed to live tellers at other locations may not want to start talking to a screen.
"You get people that are used to seeing a teller person-to-person," he said.
In addition to increasing teller productivity, some banks are looking for ways to make sure they do not have too many tellers on duty.
Just Enough Tellers
"If branches are left to their own devices — good, bad, or indifferent — they would rather have a bunch of tellers standing around to make sure the customers never, ever wait," said Martin Dorrance, a vice president for staffing administration at Zions Bank.
Such a setup can mean good customer service, but it also can mean paying employees to do nothing, he said.
Instead, Mr. Dorrance said, the retail banking unit of the $45.8 billion-asset Zions Bancorp. of Salt Lake City uses the GMT Planet work force optimization software to predict how many tellers it needs working at each branch at different periods of the day. The goal is to ensure that 95% of branch visitors wait in line for five minutes or less.
The software, from GMT Corp. of Norcross, Ga., analyzes historical data on customer traffic patterns to help branch managers predict teller schedules up to a month in advance. GMT says the application is sometimes as accurate as 99% when predicting staffing needs according to visitor volume.
"There's no way a human could be as accurate, 97% to 99% accurate. I know I couldn't," Mr. Dorrance said. Zions Bank has 136 branches and 1,700 employees.
Zions Bancorp. has seven other retail banking companies with branches in 10 states, and it lets each company manage its own technology. Mr. Dorrance said executives at other Zions banking units occasionally ask him to use GMT software to evaluate their staffing data. He said the software typically identifies potential cost savings of 15% to 25%.
"It's so funny, but as I talk to other people in the industry, I realize how little they are doing" to reduce expenses by optimizing teller schedules, he said.
Zions Bank has been using the software since 1992, but for many years the data it evaluated was stored on servers at individual branches and was difficult for corporate managers to access.
In 2005 the bank switched to a centralized database, which made it easier for managers to use the software, Mr. Dorrance said.
Zions Bank has started testing Performance Management Branch Scorecard, a GMT application designed to measure employees' cross-selling results. The software can identify whether employees and branches are meeting, exceeding, or falling short of their sales goals.
Mr. Dorrance said Zions has extensive sales data but previously could not track sales by individual workers.
Tracking the results with much more detail should create competition among branches and prompt individuals to boost their sales efforts, he said. It also would help managers recognize top-performing employees and deliver extra training to those who are falling behind, he said.
Zions Bancorp is considering using GMT Planet to plan staffing at its call centers and to schedule commercial loan officers, Mr. Dorrance said. The savings could be significant, because lenders typically earn more than tellers.
Simon Angove, GMT's president and chief executive officer, said that installing the work force optimization software costs about $2,000 a branch, and that the software, which can forecast hiring needs up to five years ahead, can help companies decide when they need to hire more people.
Many large banks already are using work force optimization technology, he said, but less than a quarter of community banks and credit unions are doing so. Some financial companies are trying to apply the technology to manage employee schedules in their back offices.
Some financial companies are trying to boost efficiency by making sure customers are steered to the right person.
Jim Hale, the branch operations director at Orange County Teachers Federal Credit Union in Santa Ana, Calif., said it has a growing number of specialists in its larger branches and is using a steering system from Q-Matic Corp., an Asheville, N.C., subsidiary of the Swedish firm Q-Matic AB, at some branches to match members with the right service representatives.
Members sign in at a reception desk when they arrive at a branch. Using a program called Q-Welcome, a receptionist records when the member arrived and the reason for the visit. The information is put into a system that tracks branch employees' abilities and availability, and the visitor is given a number.
Financial companies that do not have a reception desk can use the system with a self-service kiosk.
When service reps finish working with a customer, they hit a button on their computer, calling up a list of members who are waiting and what they need to do.
Q-Matic says service reps can be certain that they will have the knowledge to help whoever is steered to their line, and customers will not be directed to wait in the wrong line.
When representatives finish helping someone, they use another Q-Matic application to fill out a short form on their computer, explaining what they did. Besides keeping tabs on the service staff's skills, this application, Q-Matic Next, records the duration of each session and how long each customer has to wait.
In addition, managers can monitor branch-level performance using a program called Q-Win.
The goal is more efficient service, Mr. Hale said. "If our service begins to suffer, we can look. Is it because members are waiting longer? Are we taking too long on certain services? If someone gets a car loan, does it take us 20 to 30 minutes, or can we do that in 10 to 15 minutes?"
The credit union has been able to shave 10 minutes from the process of enrolling new members, he said; it now takes about 20 minutes.
Orange County Teachers has nine branches, 350,000 members, and $6.5 billion of assets. It is using the Q-Matic software at branches that have at least six service representatives, Mr. Hale said.
The three-part system costs $8,000 to $15,000 a branch.
Ms. Smith said queue management technology is common in Europe and Asia but has been slow to catch on in the United States, where Q-Matic has been marketing it for 18 months.