Banks turn to video tellers to cut costs


Above, SECU branch manager Cassie Costin speaks with teller Andrea Carroll using a video screen. Left, as more banks and credit units close branches to trim costs, financial institutions are turning to interactive teller machines such as these at an SECU credit union branch. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

If Brian Bailey has his way, the next time you deposit a check or withdraw cash, you’ll be talking to a virtual teller.

Thanks to a growing number of interactive teller machines, some area customers can now complete a number of financial transactions via two-way video that allows them to communicate with bank workers in remote locations.

“It’s a great use of self-service technology but it’s also personal because you’re face-to-face,” said Brian Bailey, a vice president at NCR, a New York-based technology company that sells interactive tellers to financial institutions.

As banks and credit unions continue to shutter branches to cut costs, video tellers have emerged as a less expensive way for them to provide face-to-face services to customers.

Many financial institutions, particularly smaller ones, are turning to interactive tellers as a way to beef up their presence in certain areas — rural communities, say, or inside a city supermarket — without investing in a bricks-and-mortar location and on-site staff.

Like ATMs, the machines perform basic transactions such as deposits and withdrawals. But they also come equipped with video and audio capabilities, as well as check scanners and signature pads to accommodate more nuanced requests.

More than 400 of the company’s interactive tellers have been installed around the world since 2012. Revenue from interactive tellers is expected to more-than-double to $100 million this year.

There are a number of different applications, both in terms of bringing banking services to city locations as well as serving the rural population across the U.S.,” he said.

Community banks and credit unions have been among the earliest to sign on, Bailey said. But now, about two years since NCR began offering interactive tellers, larger banking giants such as Bank of America and U.S. Bank have begun rolling out the technology.

“Retail banks today are under quite a bit of pressure,” Bailey said. “This allows them to continue to provide services without adding the expenses of a traditional branch.”

The number of bank branches in the Washington area has been falling in recent years as banks face higher regulatory costs. There were 1,750 branches in the metro area as of June 2013, 28 fewer than the year before, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (Nationally, 727 bank branches closed between mid-2012 and mid-2013.)

Video tellers typically cost between $50,000 and $60,000, about the same as an ATM, Bailey said.

At the State Employees Credit Union branch in College Park, members have been using interactive tellers for the past year.

The credit union, which is headquartered in Linthicum, is using the new machines in a handful of branches, including one that opened last week in downtown Baltimore.

“Customer reaction has been quite good,” said Peggy Tucker, senior vice president for member relations and branch operations at the credit union. “Members are easily adapting to the new technology.”

The credit union’s four teller machines are manned by three employees who work in a central office at SECU’s headquarters. The arrangement is cheaper and more efficient than hiring additional employees at each location, Tucker said.

“One of the biggest benefits of having the video teller is that we are able to offer expanded teller hours,” she said, adding that members can access the machines after-hours in the branch lobby.

There are other upsides too, says Bailey: Say you want to withdraw more cash than the ATM allows, or want to cash a check down to the penny. (The teller machines come stocked with a range of coins and bills for this purpose, he said.)

“Or if you have to do a number of complex transactions together — deposit a check, pay a bill and maybe get some cash back, that’s a set of transactions that’s much easier to do face-to-face,” he said.

Still, he added, certain needs, such as opening a bank account or applying for a loan, must still be done in person.

The machine “does 95 percent of what a teller can do inside the branch,” Bailey said. “But not everything.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section.
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