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Although technology has changed the nature of the banking industry, experts say the old-fashioned teller will not be extinct anytime soon.
With customers increasingly banking by ATM, telephone or computer, the number of transactions in traditional bank lobbies has declined over the years and led some banks to drop the teller line, said Mary Wilkerson, senior vice president of marketing for Boone County National Bank. “A couple of years ago, people were saying that the traditional branch [bank] would be dead, but that just isn’t true,” Wilkerson said. “People still like to deal with human beings.”
Banks have had to adapt to new customer needs while maintaining the teller function in some capacity. Traditionally, tellers sit in a line behind a counter and deal directly with transactions, while customer service representatives sit at desks and open accounts. The Callaway Bank generally follows that model, said Gary Meyerpeter, president of the bank’s Boone County market.
But other banks no longer use that paradigm. Today, each bank defines the teller position differently, Wilkerson said. For instance, many banks now blend the two roles of cash handling and account opening and designate all front-line positions as customer service representatives.
“For some banks, a teller is the same thing it was 40 years ago, and for a lot of us, it’s completely different,” Wilkerson said. “What a teller does every single day for us is way more complex than it was even 20 years ago.”
There will always be a need for people to take deposits and cash checks, said Brooke Burnham, assistant vice president and branch retail service officer for The Bank of Missouri, but customers often need more. She said her bank’s tellers are known as customer service representatives and are authorized to handle multiple types of transactions beyond those usually reserved for traditional tellers. In addition, the bank’s financial services consultants handle teller services.
“Some institutions just don’t train beyond a certain level to be able to trouble-shoot very deeply,” Burnham said. “They can answer fundamental questions, but we like for our tellers to do more.”
The Bank of Missouri has only one branch in Columbia, and its single teller window is placed at the back of the bank. When customers walk in, a customer service representative at the front greets them. It’s a style her bank calls “relationship banking,” Burnham said; her bank encourages employees to forge good relationships with customers.
But the approach sometimes confuses new visitors. “Even though it’s etched on the doors at eye level, customers will sometimes walk in our doors and say, ‘I’m looking for the bank…,’” Burnham said.
On the other hand, the more traditional Callaway Bank uses a “neighborhood banking” approach in which the bank branch focuses on serving the needs of its neighborhood customers. The company employs a “10-5” rule in which lobby employees make eye contact within 10 feet and verbally react within 5 feet.
“It’s very important for us to communicate directly with our customers using our front-line people such as the tellers,” Meyerpeter said. “They probably have more daily interaction with our customers than anyone else in the bank.”
A bank’s staffing model always depends on what the local customer needs, Wilkerson said. In two or three of her bank’s branches, no distinction is made between the functions, she said. Any employee can handle any job. But in the bank’s branch on Paris Road, she said, the majority of the transactions go through the drive-through and require traditional tellers to handle them.
“Even though it’s nice to say, ‘Well, the role is changing, or we’re adapting to the new ways of doing banking,’ in some circumstances, the old ways are what we have to do to still serve the customer effectively,” she said.
Meyerpeter said he sees the differences in banking techniques falling mainly upon generational lines. For instance, ATM usage has remained steady, while online banking has grown rapidly, he said. The statistics lead him to conclude that younger, technology-savvy customers are moving toward Internet banking, while baby boomers tend to prefer ATMs, and older customers tend to prefer interacting with a human teller. If a bank wants to serve a broad spectrum of customers, it must therefore employ several delivery methods.
Even banks that employ a traditional teller model must be flexible and adapt to technological changes in the marketplace. Many Callaway Bank branches have senior tellers who are cross-trained to be able to open accounts like customer service representatives, Meyerpeter said, and branches that employed five tellers seven years ago now have only three.
So, although there may be fewer tellers, they won’t disappear completely. “I don’t think we’re going to see tellers go by the wayside,” Burnham said. “As long as currency is out there and circulating, there is still going to be a need for tellers in some capacity.”