Today's tellers are suffering from an identity crisis.

Though they have traditionally been transaction specialists, serving customers as quickly and efficiently as possible, now they are being tapped as a cross-selling conduit to other branch employees.

The fuel driving the transformation to low-profile member of the sales staff is the evolution from dumb terminal networks for tellers to the intelligence of PC-based client/server environments with access to a bank's central files via wide area networks.

Another factor is the success of banks in persuading customers to use alternate delivery channels such as automated teller machines and home banking by personal computer or telephone.

As various delivery channels become more profitable, banks are looking for different ways to capitalize on their brick and mortar branches. Orienting tellers to sales is becoming one of those ways, but not all banks endorse it.

Whether enhancing tellers' roles will boost product sales or simply alienate customers is a question many banks are just beginning to consider.

"In the '80s, banks were focused on cost reduction," said Carolyn Fairbank, senior principal at American Management Systems, Fairfax, Va. "The mantra of the '90s is revenue generation and retaining customers. The new sales culture banks are trying to create in the branches includes every single person, including the teller."

Ms. Fairbank noted that some banks have orchestrated radical shifts in teller responsibilities. She cited the example of a Bank of America supermarket branch in which the roles of teller and platform officer were combined in one or two people trained to handle transactions, manage information, and promote sales and services.

Albank of Albany, N.Y., is a firm believer in the teller's importance for sales, and the bank is using a new PC-based platform/teller system to prove it. Part of the revamping includes working with International Business Machines Corp. to integrate the disparate systems on its mainframe and to improve communications between the host and branch offices.

The reconfiguration began in January and was expected to be completed by the end of this summer.

For Albank, the new branch system will help tellers move much more efficiently through their conventional duties, such as document handling and proofing at the close of business.

"By relieving the teller of some of their mundane activities, customers have a greater opportunity to hear about other services," said Barry Blenis, executive vice president at Albank.

Because the improvements are also expected to reduce transaction times, Mr. Blenis said, customers will be more open to suggestions to use call centers or ATMs for routine transactions or to hear about the bank's low- rate credit card.

Meanwhile, tellers get access to better information. "With our new system, tellers can see by the press of a button all of the relationships we have with a particular customer," he said. "This gives them the opportunity to see that customer as they relate to other services."

Stephen Miller, IBM's senior client representative for finance industry/retail banking, who is working on the Albank project, said tellers have the most sales potential through observing customer habits and using this information to tip off branch sales people to sales opportunities.

"If someone comes in and cashes $10 checks every day," Mr. Miller said, "that is obviously someone who doesn't have an ATM card."

Alerting a sales person to the situation establishes an opportunity for the customer to be approached at the time of his or her visit, or later through a telephone call or letter.

Information can also be transferred to a tickler file that is mined at regular intervals by platform employees.

"Tellers have collected information as part of transaction processing for years," Mr. Miller said. "Banks just weren't doing anything with it."

As systems become more sophisticated, banks also gain the advantage of tracking referrals by teller to measure success rates and perhaps establish incentive systems for even higher sales.

Albank, which has long considered tellers members of the branch selling team, regularly rewards platform referrals with bonuses, gifts, and branch parties. With tellers gaining more responsibility and possibly more pay, banks may also see less turnover among those who are typically their lowest-paid employees.

Another bank with high expectations of its tellers is Laredo National Bank, Laredo, Tex. Since most of its transactions occur in the branch, tellers are on the front line of an automation strategy to enhance customer service.

"We need to get away from the restraints we have on the people who work for us," said Dan Ryan, executive vice president for banking systems at Laredo National. "Banking has traditionally had predefined notions about what person should be doing what job." The result, he added, is a splintered customer service approach that the bank is taking steps to fix.

Since late 1993, Laredo National has used a plan developed by IBM and systems integrator QIV Systems, San Antonio, that revamps the bank's delivery system from the workstation to the mainframe and everything in between.

"We're putting more of our focus on the customers and less on back- office procedures," Mr. Ryan said.

Like most banks that upgrade their branch automation, Laredo National is installing client/server-driven personal computers with on-line access to mainframe customer information files.

The installation is expected to be completed by the middle of next year. The system is to replace a Lundy teller network that runs off- and on-line and uses software from Florida Software Systems.

The bank's automation plans also include an imaging system that will enable tellers to do quick, single-item research at the teller window. Through this function, tellers can display a check for the customer or make a copy via laser printer. The bank is also studying ways to eliminate paper from many teller transactions.

Meanwhile, not all banks believe in the worth of a sales-conscious teller staff.

"It may sound good for a teller to say, while you're standing there cashing a check, let me sell you an IRA," said Walter Leonard, executive vice president at Wachovia Corp., Winston-Salem, N.C. "But we suspect that customers are not going to be receptive to that."

Mr. Leonard noted that customers may be put off by a teller's pushing bank products when all they wanted to do was make a deposit or cash a check.

"Most folks are not thinking about discussing investment options when they get to the teller line," he said. "They want a fast, efficient, accurate, and friendly transaction-processing environment."

"They also don't want the person in front of them having a long conversation," Mr. Leonard said.

Ms. Fairbank of American Management Systems noted that one way to keep lines moving is to develop two- to three-sentence scripts for tellers to use when presented with a sales prospect.

"There should also be a way a teller can take a customer who wants more information about a product to a platform officer while another teller completes the transaction," she said.

Apart from the fear of creating disgruntled account holders, Mr. Leonard foresees another pitfall in transforming tellers. "We're concerned that getting the teller to think about something else may deteriorate their accuracy," he said. "It would certainly slow the transaction process down."

Though Mr. Leonard said he "never says 'never,' " Wachovia tellers will continue providing the level of service to which customers are used, even as the bank ushers in a new client/server-based branch automation system.

For Wachovia, the goal is to help tellers do even better what they ordinarily do.

"Our general concern is to ask our customers how do they want to be served and where and when do they want to be served," Mr. Leonard said. "Then we're saying that's the way we want to serve them."

Ms. Monahan is a freelance writer based in New York.

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