In the world of banking, the teller has always occupied a clear and narrowly defined place. Traditionally, a good one handled customer transactions at the window quickly and accurately. The word "teller," after all, comes from the Dutch verb, "tellen," to count.
But the teller position is undergoing a transformation. As banks embark on a crusade to turn branch employees into more effective sales people, some have discovered the value of enlisting tellers, who are often the only bank employees with whom customers have contact on a regular basis.
Banks of all sizes from Citibank to cutting-edge community banks such as Oregon-based South Umpqua Bank are training tellers to glean customer needs and then to make the appropriate referral to a branch representative who can close the sale. To obtain teller "buy-in" to this new way of doing things, many banks are tying more and more teller bonuses to referrals that lead to sales.
"Tellers must still be friendly, efficient, and error-free,'' says John R. Cochran, chairman of FirstMerit Corp., a $9 billion-asset banking company in Akron, Ohio. "But they must also identify sales opportunities.''
It remains to be seen whether this expanded job definition has made the task of hiring tellers any easier or harder on human resources executives. In the current tight labor market, banks are still struggling to find enough tellers to fill positions notorious for high turnover and relatively low job satisfaction. Recently, for example, First Union Corp. announced a beefed-up effort to recruit 2,000 tellers that involves paying larger bonuses to employees for candidate referrals and increased advertising. The bank talks of teller turnover approaching 40% annually.
Still, some executives say the trend toward more sales-conscious tellers can only bode well because of increased job satisfaction for those filling the jobs and increased sales for the banks that hire them.
"Because the classic teller responsibilities can be somewhat repetitive, many tellers see the additional sales responsibilities as challenging,'' said Ellen Holliday, head of employee development at First Union.
Clearly, the new job responsibilities have implications for hiring.
"Now we're looking for more retail-oriented people,'' said Ray Davis, chief executive officer of Umpqua Holdings Corp., Roseburg, Ore., the $340 million-asset parent of South Umpqua Bank. "If we have a job opening and we had a candidate who worked as a traditional teller at the bank across the street, and we had a another candidate who worked behind the counter at J.C. Penney, I'd probably go with the candidate from Penney's.''
The movement toward requiring tellers to think more about sales and services goes back at least three or four years, but it appears to be picking up steam.
Citibank, for example, started a regimen of increased training and bonuses for tellers in the spring, a bank spokesman said. Tellers, now called "financial consultants,'' are eligible for bonuses tied to sales referrals, the quality of service they provide, and the overall way they relate to others in the bank branch, the spokesperson said.
At First Union, tellers have received bonuses for referrals for several years, but the amounts have increased in the past year, Ms. Holliday said. Good tellers are making up to $85 a month in referral bonuses, she said.
At FirstMerit, which prides itself on its "sales culture,'' tellers can generate annual bonuses of 10% of their salaries for generating referrals that lead to sales, said Mr. Cochran. For a teller receiving a starting salary of $20,000, that translates to $2,000.
Bankers say these new sales-oriented tellers bring another advantage to the bank a pool of bankers more capable of moving into high-level sales positions.
"There is more mobility in this position now than ever before," he said.