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Banking On Video Tellers Has Mixed Results Some Customers Hate It, Others Say It’s Inevitable

Michelle Singletary The Washington Post

Angela Mitchell doesn’t approve of the banking industry’s latest move to automate service - a video screen connecting the customer with a live teller.

After her second experience using such a monitor at Crestar Financial Corp.’s downtown Washington branch, she declared she “hated it.”

“I think that automation is fine, but I’m concerned that we are losing the personal touch,” said Mitchell, who works for a temporary-employment agency near the branch. “I want to use a bank that uses real people. I am not going to use this branch again.”

Crestar customers at three branches in the Washington area now must do their banking with tellers by way of a monitor the size of a 9-inch television. Gene Kirby, Crestar’s executive vice president for retail banking for the Washington region, said the video tellers are intended not to provide more security but to speed up service and reduce lines.

Consumers have very different reactions to the tellers. Some, like Mitchell, strongly object, saying they are a case of technology gone too far. Others find the video monitors fascinating and inevitable.

“This just blew me away,” said John N. Hall, business systems administrator for National Geographic Maps, who recently visited the downtown branch. “It’s a little unnerving at first not having somebody there, but it’s fine with me. It’s different.”

Crestar, like banks across the country, is taking advantage of technological advances to streamline service.

The video monitors don’t exactly replace live tellers. The same number of tellers are located a short distance away elsewhere in the same branch. Kirby said the most important feature is that it allows a teller to serve two customers at once.

At six branches in Washington, Mellon Bank has introduced what it calls “video bankers.” Customers who want investment information or need to discuss a mortgage can do so through a machine the size of a computer. The terminal is equipped with a small camera that, through videoconferencing technology, allows customers to talk to specialists at Mellon’s Pittsburgh headquarters.

“In 10 years’ time you will see a lot more bank services being delivered in an electronic way,” said Fred Beard, president and chief executive of Mellon’s national capital area.

Banks are increasingly realizing that despite consolidation in the industry, the number of branches is not declining. So banks need to find ways to operate branches more cost-effectively.

The number of branches nationwide increased to nearly 87,000 last year, up almost 5 percent over the previous three years, according to a report by Mentis Corp., a Durham, N.C.-based research firm. Much of this increase is driven by growth in specialty branches, such as automated offices, supermarket branches and video kiosks, said James Moore, Mentis chief executive.

The system works like this: A customer steps up to a monitor, and almost immediately a teller appears on the screen. The customer places the necessary paperwork in a metal drawer and pushes a button. The teller goes away and the monitor fades to news briefs, sports scores, movie reviews or bank product information.

On a nearby screen at another station, the teller’s video image pops up. Both customers wait while their transactions are being processed. Customers stand at eight video tellers rather than in one line.

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