Tellers Become Guides and Storytellers in High-Tech Branches

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If banks can agree on one branch-design principle, it's that the branch of the future will not have teller windows. Instead, they will be equipped with self-service machines that can handle transactions like cash a check or get $1 bills, freeing up branch staff formerly called tellers to roam the branch to offer whatever service is needed, whether that's opening an account, setting in motion a loan application or teaching customers how to pay a bill online or with a mobile device.

The assisted self-service experience is reminiscent of the airport — with check-in kiosks and agents — and is already part of many branches.

"Assisted self-service is the way it will end up fairly quickly," says Kevin Travis, who leads the distribution practice at Novantas.

The broad idea is to get customers more comfortable with using self-service technology, while at the same time, offering them an opportunity for face-to-face contact.

Tablet-carrying branch employees who demo online bill pay and guide consumers to touchscreens in addition to opening accounts, and newer software that can handle what had been common teller transactions, are filling in at a time of ever-declining floor traffic in a channel that still scores the most product sales for banks. Fifth Third Bank, Wells Fargo & Co., PNC Bank, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, and for a longer time, Umpqua have been among the growing list of banks experimenting with edgier branch layouts. Renditions of future branches are experiments to uncover sales value for a new format — something banks have yet to solve for in a universal way, excepting one thing, say observers.

"As far as I can see, the teller line is gone," says Travis.

The fresher variations on a tired experience are a bid by banks to create something cost effective, digitally current, and — at least for now — staffed with informed employees who re-engage consumers in multiple ways.

The reimagined layouts make new demands on in-branch employees — they need to just as easily sign someone up on a checking account as explain what could be a confusing navigation experience to an individual looking to get $5 bills from a teller instead of an ATM — at first.

Indeed, interior design changes with added self-service tech are requiring those working the branch to channel their inner Beatrices and ease the Dantes into the new looks and features that wildly depart from yesteryears' branch with lines and ropes — including knowing all the ins and outs of product lines and digital features available to use.

Take PNC Bank. The Pittsburgh bank debuted two modern branches in early July — with discovery zones, iPads, and free wiFi.

It "looks different than a traditional branch," says Dan Bishop, retail branch manager for one of PNC's first techier, teller-line-free branches in Malvern. "Our role is to walk them into the future."

That starts with a greeting at the door and follows with whatever the customer wants to accomplish just as concierges would do for hotel guests. In the branch's case, the customer might be opening an account or making use of the collaboration area to train customers on, say, online bill pay. Consumers most ask to be educated on the more sophisticated ATM features and credit card programs, says Bishop.

PNC's branch pilot offers an example of what will increasingly come to the banking mix in years to come to respond to conflicting trends of less floor traffic, and yet, people still wanting to come into branches.

Case in point: In 2013, consumers visited the branch an average of 2.8 times per month, according to data from Synergistics Research Corp. That's a drop from the 3.2 times they frequented in 2009.

Branches, however, are not expected to disappear anytime soon, despite diminishing usage. Rather, they are getting makeovers and new technologies to make running the facilities more cost efficient. In turn, the role of traditional teller — counting coins and dollars — is changing for individuals who are aces at bank product knowledge (including digital features) and who aren't shy to approach customers rather than wait for someone to come to him. The more encompassing role matters a lot to the bank and customer.

Indeed, Synergistics' research also shows that the majority of consumers say they want a human being within the branch as a backup plan, and view tablet-equipped employees as a means to improve the overall experience. The firm's data is pointing to something branch managers like Bishop have observed: More software may be running in the branch, but it's the people that make it work.

"Without the staff I have here, the tech means nothing," says Bishop, who describes the location's employees as people "who have a stage presence and can walk someone through the banking experience and put it in such a way a customer understands it."

That echoes what other banks, like Fifth Third Bank, have observed in their test-and-learn teller-line-less branches and what Wells Fargo identifies as a crucial personal trait for those working at its newer concept branch.

Wells Fargo, which made a splash about a year ago when it introduced a smaller store in the D.C. area that comes with tablet-equipped employees, ATMs that dispense a variety of dollar amounts including $1 and $5 and free wiFi, identifies outgoing individuals as core to making its new model run smoother. 

Staffers need to "think on their feet and love to interact with the customer," says Jahreem Purcell Edwards, store manager at Wells Fargo's NoMa Capital Plaza.

Similar to a retail store — and in fact called a store — its team members, wearing Wells Fargo-branded shirts, are expected to greet those entering the real estate. "It's innovative and it's fun," says Edwards. "No two days are the same here. It keeps team members on their toes."

There are commonalities, of course. Employees, for example, must explain the techier concept to newcomers as the store is unlike any other of Wells' locations, and therefore, requires more of a guide and storyteller to help someone get familiar with what he can do, says Jahreem.

The newer branch concepts are just one way banks are working to make their in-branch lines vanish. Another emerging trend is how banks have slowly but surely been adding booking capabilities — much like retailers -- on their websites as a way to help make sure the person coming into the branch will meet with the right expert without needing to wait in a lobby. Wells Fargo and Bank of America are among the big banks offering the feature. UMB Bank, meanwhile, recently introduced "digital geniuses" who are in-branch digital experts that customers can book via the bank's website to learn how to do something digitally in the branch at a scheduled time. 

Westpac New Zealand, meanwhile, is testing Apple's indoor wireless location sensors, iBeacons, as a techier way to identify who is coming into their physical environments.

The small initiative is reflective of a large trend: branches across the country are trying to become advisory and service centers where people can get help from how to use an app to opening accounts, and potentially, learn something new from someone who can assist on a myriad of requests — without a wait time for the consumer while also adding cost efficiencies for the bank running the branch.

The wrinkle to the branch experience is consistent with the trend of consumers increasingly researching what they want to buy before going to a physical location.

"Now when someone walks into the location, he is further down the path of making a decision," says Gary Ambrosino, president of TimeTrade, which sells appointment-booking software to banks and other businesses. "People know more what they want when they come in and see tech as a way to save time.... They are looking for service that helps them get their [agendas] done."

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