Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why Can't Tellers be Sellers?

By Vijay Balakrishnan, president of StratEx, LLC (

Stepping into a debate that is as old as retail banking is perhaps unwise. There are passionate adherents ranged on both sides of the question. To some, the issue is not whether, but should tellers be sellers?

The question brings the raison d'etre of the retail branch network into sharp relief. Are branches retail storefronts with the primary mission to enhance customer relationships, or are they collection points for myriad transactions processed by centralized back office operations centers? Is the driving imperative one of customer intimacy, or does operational efficiency rule the roost?

A tilt towards operational efficiency has traditionally driven retail banking, with occasional overtures to the selling side of the equation. These overtures, however, tend to be fleeting, and with few exceptions, have not survived beyond some concerted marketing and employee incentive programs.

To understand why the push towards serving and selling the customer has not been sustainable, consider a few points. Making check deposits is by far the main reason customers visit a branch. When they do visit, the teller is the person they most often interact with. Regardless of all the training and incentives that may have been put in place, consider what tellers actually do. They are heads down punching numbers into keyboards (try counting the number of teller keystrokes the next time you're in a branch). They have barely enough time to complete the data entry and squeeze out a quick thank you before the next customer is at their window. Imagine a Neimann Marcus salesperson wordlessly packing what you've picked out and intently ensuring that the bow on the package is just right! Yes, the analogy is not quite right- but you get the picture.

So despite many a marketing push, it is the fundamental transaction tether that yanks the teller back into the role of a frontline operations clerk- the first cog in the vast infrastructure that we put in place to process paper checks, featuring planes, trains, automobiles and giant "paper factories".

There is an alternative, courtesy the legislative cover of Check 21 and advances in imaging and recognition technology. Teller Capture allows the teller to drop the entire deposit into a small foot print scanner and interact heads up with the customer, while an imaging application reads all the necessary information, ensures the transaction is balanced, and prints out a receipt when done. Teller Capture eliminates teller induced data entry errors, and also catches math errors up front. This "ready-to-post" transaction at the very beginning of the deposit stream results in major efficiency savings further down the value chain. It is as close to straight-through-processing as one can get in the check world.

"Not so fast," say some. "You want to make my tellers into check operators?" The reality is that the opposite is true. There is now evidence of major savings in teller time per deposit, including data from a Top 5 U.S. bank of having reduced keystrokes from 75 to 5!

"What about the cost of a scanner and software at every station?" challenge others. "It is really difficult to integrate these capture applications with teller systems." The cost per node for both hardware and software is steadily declining, making it well worth the while to examine the return on investment. The hard numbers on transportation savings, back office labor elimination, and funds availability make it interesting- leave alone the soft benefits in customer service and added sales. Capture systems are also increasingly being integrated into teller systems, both by teller vendors that have acquired check-capture technology, and pure play check imaging vendors that have certified their applications with leading teller vendors.

Coming back to the tellers-to-sellers paradigm, what do you do with the saved time? Do you use it to push even more transactions through? Do you have tellers refer customers to other branch personnel based on prompts from an integrated CRM system? Or do you have tellers take on more of a sales and service role themselves? Those are decisions that will be driven by your overarching strategic intent. Do you want tellers to be sellers in the first place? As you ponder that question, you may want to look at teller capture as an opportunity to cut the transaction tether that keeps pulling you back, yo-yo-like, to the paper factory of another era.

What do you think?

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