Some banks are giv­ing tell­ers more to do and bet­ter pay

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY EMMA KINERY Bloomberg

Bank branches still have greeters, cof­fee and some­times freshly baked cook­ies. At HSBC, there’s also Pep­per the fi­nance robot. About 4 feet tall, Pep­per is shiny white with a lemon­shaped head, large eyes that light up blue, and a tablet at­tached to its chest.

Pep­per might seem like HSBC Hold­ings’ vi­sion for a not-so-dis­tant fu­ture without tell­ers, but that’s not so, ac­cord­ing to Pablo Sanchez, the firm’s head of U.S. re­tail bank­ing and wealth man­age­ment. The robot’s job is to lure pedes­tri­ans into HSBC’s flag­ship on Man­hat­tan’s Fifth Av­enue, then pose for self­ies, field ba­sic ques­tions and di­rect cus­tomers who need real help to the right hu­man.

When Gold­man Sachs launched its dig­i­tal con­sumer bank, it con­ducted a sur­vey on cus­tomer at­ti­tudes. It turns out peo­ple want to find an­swers without as­sis­tance – un­til they can’t and im­me­di­ately want help from a qual­i­fied banker. There’s high tol­er­ance for self­ser­vice un­til it fails, and then there’s no tol­er­ance. As banks across the coun- try re­assess branches, those find­ings keep get­ting val­i­dated.

It’s one rea­son why many bank tell­ers are get­ting raises this year. Con­ven­tional wis­dom is that the job – held by al­most a half-mil­lion Amer­i­cans – is en­ter­ing a sharp de­cline. The U.S. Bu­reau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics projects banks will elim­i­nate more than 40,000 po­si­tions in the decade through 2026. That would likely sup­press teller wages, which hov­ered around a me­dian $13.50 an hour last year.

Yet, in in­ter­views and anec­dotes, a more nu­anced pic­ture emerges. Af­ter banks re­ceived gen­er­ous tax cuts in De­cem­ber, sev­eral of the na­tion’s largest – in­clud­ing Wells Fargo & Co., PNC Fi­nan­cial Ser­vices Group Inc. and Fifth Third Ban­corp – said they’re rais­ing their min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour.

Branches and tell­ers aren’t go­ing away en­tirely. In­stead, as cus­tomers turn to mo­bile phones for rou­tine fi­nan­cial ser­vices, tell­ers are be­ing up­graded, taught to pitch loans, guide lo­cal en­trepreneurs and of­fer tech­ni­cal sup­port. The re­sult is that at many lenders, a job widely seen as en­dan­gered by au­to­ma­tion is start­ing to pay more.

“Years ago tell­ers just had to give you an ac­count bal­ance or find out if you wanted fives or tens,” said Christo­pher Ma­her, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of OceanFirst Fi­nan­cial Corp., New Jer­sey’s fourth-largest lender. “Now they have to solve prob­lems like my PayPal doesn’t work, or my Venmo doesn’t work, or why doesn’t Uber ac­cept my card?”

OceanFirst cre­ated a nine-week “cer­ti­fied dig­i­tal banker” course, train­ing staff on a va­ri­ety of bank­ing and pay­ment plat­forms. The com­pany said it aims to have 500 grad­u­ates by year-end. BBVA Com­pass Banc­shares Inc. is help­ing tell­ers earn cer­ti­fi­ca­tions and li­censes to help cus­tomers with more com­plex fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions.

The strat­egy is to in- crease the num­ber of uni­ver­sal tell­ers who can an­swer all ques­tions. To re­flect those skills, OceanFirst bumped its min­i­mum wage to $15.

Some­times there isn’t a need for an in-per­son teller. When a re­tire­ment home asked OceanFirst to open a mini-branch in its com­plex, the bank couldn’t jus­tify the cost. Com­peti­tors were ex­per­i­ment­ing with video tell­ers, so it tried that.

Video teller ma­chines look like ATMs – but with the op­tion of push­ing a but­ton and con­nect­ing to a hu­man. One teller can sup­port 10 ma­chines, per­form­ing al­most any ser­vice avail­able at a nor­mal branch. Ev­ery branch OceanFirst has built since then is equipped with the ma­chines, al­low­ing them to stay open longer.

“It’s not sim­ply ‘Oh I have mo­bile bank­ing, there­fore it’ll work,’ ” Ma­her said. “It’s got to be how you hire peo­ple, how you train peo­ple, how you re­ward peo­ple and how you man­age them.”

Still, it’s un­de­ni­able branches are get­ting slim­mer. En­try­ways with tow­er­ing mar­ble columns and pri­vate of­fices spread over 10,000 square feet are be­com­ing a relic. Most branches built to­day are a fourth to an eighth that size, with open floors to look larger.

“You don’t want to have a big mau­soleum of a branch that has 12 teller win­dows and there’s two tell­ers,” said Sanchez of HSBC.

BBVA is go­ing mod­u­lar. Walls ex­pand or con­tract as needed, turn­ing a con­fer­ence room into a spot for desks. The bank has found cus­tomers like the con­ve­nience of bank­ing on­line, but that they want the se­cu­rity of brick and mor­tar. So while ev­ery prod­uct is avail­able on­line, each branch has its own “client ex­pe­ri­ence man­ager” – 650 in all – to en­sure peo­ple are treated well when they ar­rive in per­son.

LUKE SHARRETT Bloomberg

De­spite the con­ven­tional wis­dom and re­cent cut­backs, bank branches and tell­ers aren’t go­ing away en­tirely. In­stead, tell­ers are be­ing up­graded, taught to pitch loans, guide lo­cal en­trepreneurs and of­fer tech­ni­cal sup­port.

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