In the Workplace

The Evolving Teller

In The Digital Era, The Bank Teller’s Role Shifts And Expands

Candace Talmadge

February 13, 2020

Will the bank teller in the digital age ultimately be a sophisticated robot? That’s where the industry is heading, according to a PwC financial services technology trends report.

For now, however, the shifting role of the human bank teller embodies the profound changes that digitization is bringing to banks of all sizes. The initial advent of online account access and then mobile banking have upended the teller’s role right along with the entire industry.

With smart phones, “the bank is now in the palm of their (customers’) hands,” pointed out Honey Shelton, president of InterAction Training Systems of Humble, Texas. Shelton has been training tellers and other bank employees since 1983.

Changes in the teller’s role have happened faster in banks serving large urban markets like New York City than smaller or rural markets, said Jim Burson, managing director of financial services industry consulting and research firm Cornerstone Advisors. But, Shelton added, community banks in smaller rural markets are now scrambling to catch up.

Reduced Opportunities

Digitization is reducing the opportunities for employment as a teller and prompting banks to close bank branches. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 12 percent drop in the numbers of U.S. teller jobs between 2018 and 2028. And banks were operating 8.6 percent fewer branches at the close of 2018 than at the end of 2013, the FDIC reports.

But fewer tellers in fewer branches is by no means the whole story. The role of the teller is evolving. Different institutions use varying titles for the new role, such as universal banker or branch associate. But there is a common thread. Tellers are now doing a lot more for customers than taking in cash deposits and handing out withdrawals.

“The complexity of the teller’s job has increased significantly,” said Christopher Maher, chairman/CEO of OceanFirst Bank, which retrained more than 500 frontline employees in about 65 branches. Those who become certified as a universal banker get a pay boost.

Training is key, Shelton emphasized. Universal bankers or branch associates may be called on to handle something complicated like opening a partnership account, while managers now chip in to take deposits. Shelton said that since such tasks are not routine, the bank should have detailed instructions readily available to the branch associate or universal banker to consult in such instances.

More Certification & Training

Shelton also noted that the expanded teller role also involves keeping a close watch for signs of fraud. Then there is assisting customers with technology snafus. OceanFirst also certifies tellers as digital bankers capable of guiding customers through issues with popular third-party financial apps like Venmo, Maher said.

Tellers now serve customers remotely via video from centralized locations. OceanFirst closed or consolidated roughly 40 branches over the past three years, and invested some of the savings into training and customer care centers, Maher explained. A lot of banks are moving tellers to centralized offices, Shelton said.

Tomkins Mahopac Bank, headquartered in Putnam County, N.Y., began training its tellers to become branch associates three years ago, said Carol Schmitz, senior vice president/community banking manager.

Tomkins Mahopac takes advantage of digital tools to like texts and emails to keep customers informed. It uses voice calls from branch associates to talk to them about their financial needs and discuss products that can help them. Most Tomkins Mahopac tellers welcomed the new career opportunities, but a few found it hard to adapt to relationship phone calls, Schmitz added.

And the teller’s digital age role is all about relationships. So much so that the physical barrier of the line is going away, Burson said. Instead, tellers are morphing into concierges and greeters who circulate among customers, talking with them, looking for opportunities to nurture relationships and watching for signs of fraud.

Patriot Bank N.A., Stamford, Conn., began the process of redesigning its nine branches and reshaping teller roles two years ago, according to Fred Staudmyer, the bank’s executive vice president/chief administrative officer.

The first step was to introduce interactive teller machines (ITMs), which offer live tellers via video at its branches plus at Westfield Trumbull shopping center in Trumbull, Conn., and at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Conn. These touch screen ITMs enable customers to conduct virtually all the business they could transact at a teller counter inside a branch.

The next step was to test cash recyclers in its branches to manage deposits and withdrawals more efficiently. These machines free up teller time for higher value activities like cross sales, opening accounts, and telemarketing.

Potential In Visitors

Indeed, those fewer and less frequent branch customer visits still hold a lot potential for banks that branch associates or universal bankers are now tasked with uncovering. The Federal Reserve’s latest triennial Survey of Consumer Finances showed that those who still visit bank branches the most tend to be older, wealthier, and self-employed.

“This makes the teller a really valuable employee,” Shelton pointed out.

One challenge for the industry in the changing role of the teller is recruiting, Burson said. The skills needed for new teller role are much greater than the traditional entry level position. Banks now must find, attract, and retain the right kind of talent to fill the roles of universal banker or branch associate.

Tellers now need “a set of skills to enhance the customer experience,” said Shelton. She trains tellers and managers not to sell customers what they don’t need, but instead to look for ways to make the customer experience better. That way of thinking “can be very foreign to a bank,” she added.

In order to be truly successful, branch associates or universal bankers also need a manager to model the behavior the bank wants and to coach them continuously, Shelton said.

Patriot Bank retrained and renamed its tellers and head tellers as service associates and senior service associates, Staudmyer added. Patriot Bank senior service associates have been trained to open accounts, send ACHs and wires, and conduct outbound telemarketing.

Several of Patriot Bank’s senior service associates have enhanced their careers with training and are now working in its banking center, deposit operations, and SBA loan operations. Taking on new responsibilities creates upward mobility and improved performance, leading to pay increases.

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