When automated teller machines first caught on at banks, human tellers came to be seen as an anachronism that many institutions wanted to phase out.
Not anymore. Even as more and more transactions are being handled by ATM and telephone, bankers increasingly are valuing the human touch that only living tellers can provide. As a result, bank retail executives are looking for tellers whose primary talent is selling bank services, rather than counting money.
"We still encourage our tellers to pay attention to speed and accuracy but also stay in touch with the customers, to see if they appreciate our business," said Scott Anderson, executive vice president, retail banking, for Zions First National Bank in Park City, Utah.
As more routine bank transactions are being handled by telephone and ATM, a higher proportion of the transactions being handled by tellers are snafus that machines can't handle.
This means that tellers have to be better at problem-solving than in the past, and also need to be smoother with irate customers, said Banc One Corp. spokesman John Russell, in Columbus, Ohio.
Also, banks are starting to view their branches more like retailers would. They're measuring sales per square foot and per employee and are trying to boost sales efficiency by asking tellers to look for potential sales leads.
As many of the new bank branches are opening in grocery stores, tellers are being asked to walk the food aisles prospecting for leads. For example, May Linn Nara-Christensen, who works at a Zions branch located in a grocery story, is expected to spend at least 30 minutes a day wandering the store, greeting patrons, and telling them about the bank branch.
The demand for sales ability is making bankers value new hires with retail experience, a trend Ms. Nara-Chrisensen typifies. The teller formerly worked at a gas station, a K-mart, and a local clothing store.
Among the banks trying to get more sales work out of their tellers is Bank of Hawaii, the largest bank in Hawaii with 75 branches. At the institution, tellers are trained to "be probing for needs" among customers, said John D. Field Jr. senior vice president in charge of the state's branch network.
At $8.3 billion asset Coast Savings Financial Inc., in Los Angeles, a $20,000 a year teller can make an additional $250 to $400 a month in sales bonuses by referring customers to specialists who sell insurance, mutual funds, and annuities, or open checking accounts, said Ray Martin, chief executive officer.
Mr. Martin, who got his start at the thrift in 1959 as a teller, said the requirement to make sales referrals makes being a teller "a more challenging job than it used to be."
The benefit for tellers, besides the opportunity to make more money, is more avenues for advancement, Mr. Martin said.
The benefit for the bank, though, is more immediate. Mr. Martin said that tellers have played a key role in Coast's ability to grow its checking account base by 6,000 a month for two years, and to sell $30 million a month of investment products.
Of course, in one important respect being a teller is much harder than it was a decade ago - tellers today are more likely to be part-time employees.
For instance, a decade ago at Banc One nearly all of the tellers were full-time, Mr. Russell said. Now, 40% of them are part-timers, and in a couple of years, there is expected to be an equal split between part-time and full-timers.
Bank executives say the transition to more part-time work helps them cut costs, and improve customer service by boosting staffing at peak times.
But there also have been problems, the most notable being the spate of negative publicity Bank of America received in local newspapers in 1993 when it instituted new teller work hours in its California branch system that forced some 600 tellers to switch from full-time to part-time employment and lose their medical benefits.
Bank of America spokesman Richard Beebe maintained that the publicity was unfair, since, at the same time, 1,000 tellers increased their hours enough to start qualifying for full benefits. But he acknowledged that ill feelings were created by the change.
"The impression created was that we were shifting vast numbers of our teller work force into nonbenefited positions," he said.
But that doesn't minimize the importance of tellers, especially now that they are doing more selling, bankers said. Added John D. Eskildsen, president of U.S. Natoinal Bank of Oregon, "The job is one that is terribly important with us."