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The TD Bank branch at 15th and L streets NW in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
February 26, 2012

Customers at Burke & Herbert Bank can transfer funds and pay bills online, but a number prefer the greeting of a friendly teller over a log-in prompt.

“I see about 75 customers a day, mainly for deposits and mortgage payments,” said Ronaldo Guerrara, a 23-year-old teller at the bank’s branch in Old Town Alexandria. “There are still some things people don’t feel comfortable doing online or through an ATM.”

There are an average of four tellers at each of Burke & Herbert’s 25 branches in the region. That number has remained fairly consistent over the past five years, even as the bank invested millions in technology and faced the pressures of the recession.

“There continues to be demand for in-person and automated banking,” said Terry Cole, director of products, marketing and sales at Burke & Herbert.

Burke & Herbert is one of several banks in the area that continued to staff up its front-line, reflecting a broader national trend that economists expect to grow, albeit marginally.

The number of tellers increased 13 percent in the past decade as banks throughout the country extended hours or opened new branches, according to the Labor Department. The agency expects the number of bank tellers will rise from 600,500 in 2008 to 638,000 by 2018.

It seems counterintuitive to add front-line personnel in the age of remote deposit capture and mobile banking. Computer-based transactions are often less than 10 percent the cost of using a branch for banks. But banks, regardless of size, say tellers are key to their operations.

“When a customer walks into our bank, the first person they see are our tellers. They’re the ones they build that primary relationship with,” said Praneet Chahal, the local district manager for Wells Fargo.

If anything, Chahal said, technology has made processing transactions easier for tellers, making them more productive.

Technology also has helped redefine their roles, transforming them into salespeople.

“We now look to our tellers to educate customers about what else is available, and refer customers over to other bankers,” said Cole of Burke & Herbert.

For its part, Virginia Commerce Bank has expanded its training program with the creation of a Retail Training and Development department. The Arlington-based bank hired three managers to lead a series of workshops and courses to cross-train tellers on multiple products.

“They can’t underwrite a residential mortgage, but they can answer a lot of your questions and get you to a mortgage officer,” said Steven Reeder, executive vice president of retail banking at Virginia Commerce.

Reeder said the bank, with 28 branches in the area, is considering eliminating the traditional teller line at its new Rosslyn branch and only having universal bankers.

As TD Bank continues to expand its current network of 44 branches in the Washington area, it too is training tellers to look for opportunities to introduce customers to new products, said Andrew Richards, senior vice president of retail banking. The bank is scheduled to open three more locations in the area this year.

The growth in bank branches in the Washington area bucks the nationwide trend of consolidations amid bank failures. Still, analysts suspect banks will become more sensitive to cost efficiency as regulatory compliance costs climb. Shaving a few dollars off of operations, where staffing is a major line item, could become a necessity. That could slow job growth for tellers.

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