Yes, We Have No Tellers
Another credit union announced last week that it was taking a step in the direction of removing tellers from its branches.
The 134,000 member University Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Austin, Texas, will deploy ATMs to open at least three branches without tellers and may open another once details relating to the property are worked out, according to a University FCU executive.
“We want member interactions with University Federal Credit Union to be about their experience. Each positive interaction will increase members’ comfort levels and encourage them to grow with us as a partner,” said UFCU Chief Operating Officer Steve Kubala in an announcement published by Diebold, the manufacturer of the ATMs that the CU will deploy in the new branches.
But while at first glance this might appear as something as simple as taking a more expensive human element out of the branch to replace it with a less expensive technology, Kubala and other executives stress that what University and other credit unions and some banks are seeking to do is nothing less than change the entire way credit union members or bank customers experience visiting the institution.
“What I am really looking for is something similar to the atmosphere at an Apple retail store,” Kubala said of the new branches, referring to the well known nationwide computer manufacturer and retailer.
“The new branches will be modern, free flowing, efficient and sharply focused on improved member service,” he said, adding that University saw this move as less about eliminating tellers than about streamlining transactions to free up staff for more complex and detailed customer service.
In the older system, tellers are responsible for primarily doing transactions and little else, Kubala explained. In the new system personal financial representatives will be available on the branch floor for everything from helping members use the machines for the first time to helping them print cashier’s checks, decide which loans is best and make other, more complex, financial decisions.
“There will be some PFRs who will have licenses to be able to talk about investments and insurance products,” Kubala said, adding that the CU may also have people approved to take mortgage applications in the branches as well.
Re-thinking the branch experience in this way meant Kubala and other executives at University had to look at everything from the type of furniture and the kind of lighting it will use as well as the type of ATMs it will have.
Kubala explained that the type of current ATMs most members recognize, whether through a wall or free standing, would not suit the new space as they tended to be unfriendly, unapproachable and relatively large. By comparison, Kubala and University wanted the ATMs to be smaller, friendly and more approachable–again in many ways like an Apple or other tablet computer.
Kubala said the CU did not authorize him to release pictures of the ATMs or drawings of the new branch spaces, but he said the new ATMs will not have any buttons and will be accessed entirely through large flat screens much like tablet computers.
The branches will also have other areas nearby, with desks and doors, where members could talk to PFRs about more complex or more personal financial topics and where they could sign loan papers or other documents, Kubala explained.
University is the latest credit union to have started to move away from using tellers, a trend that Michael Colvin, one of four principal partners in the Atlanta-based consultancy, Level 5, sees picking up steam. Level 5 helps credit unions and some community banks reconfigure branches but did not work with University on its branching project.
“In 10 years, I believe the financial institution with a teller line is going to be the anomaly. The branches without tellers will be the norm,” Colvin said, adding that the “compelling” economic case for moving away from models where “tellers are trapped behind the counter” will eventually trump popular misconceptions and mistakenly placed concerns.
He said Level 5 has projects active in between 50 and 60 credit unions around the country but that it’s hard to know how many the firm does in a calendar year because so many of the transitions to teller-less branches are multi-year processes.
“I might have a proposal accepted today, but that new branch might not open until November 2012,” Colvin said.
One of the most widespread misconceptions is that all teller-less branches means is replacing people with machines, Colvin explained, with a drop into a mechanized and automatic sort of service.
But he maintained that what teller-less branches really mean is an increase in customer service and a corresponding increase in a more engaged and detailed sort of customer service, combined with increased efficiency that helps members make better use of their time.
Citing University's model of the Apple store, Colvin pointed to Apple's empowering and equipping its staff to be able to take customer's payment for items from where ever they happen to be on the floor.
This saves consumers the time of waiting in a line at a checkout counter and enables the staff to be able to more efficiently help them find things in the store and answer consumer questions. Likewise, a teller-less branch allows credit union staff to interact in a more targeted and efficient way with members and allows members who need to visit a branch just to make routine transactions to do so more efficiently.
The increased level of customer service can be seen in the way the new branches have sharply lowered the risk of branch robbery, Colvin noted. Not only is there no money loosely available in the teller-less branch, the credit union staff working in a teller-less branch are trained to interact with members earlier than tellers do, when they first step in the door.
This makes teller-less branches less attractive to robbers because it both increases the risk of being identified later and the likelihood the robbery attempt will be detected earlier, Colvin explained.