The Evolution of Tellers: Past, Present, and Future

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Think back to the last time you went into a credit union branch. How long ago was it? A week? A month? A year? How long did it take you to get your business done? How many people were in line before you and how long did they take? How many tellers were at the counter?

For those of you who love your credit union and are on a friendly basis with your tellers, I’d suspect you probably go in on a regular basis even for simple transactions. But for those of you who value convenience over customer service and those who use online and mobile banking for the majority of your transactions, it’s possible to go months or even years without stepping foot inside of a credit union or speaking to a teller.

Especially in the last year, where credit unions and banks alike were forced to close their lobbies and lean more on technology to do the heavy lifting, members went longer and longer without seeing tellers, and many learned new ways to get their banking needs met rather than going into a branch.

But it wasn’t always that way. Tellers used to be an essential component to any transaction, even one as basic as checking account balances. Since then, the role has reshaped itself to be more flexible and assist where needed. This does beg the question though: with technology improving at an exponential rate and mobile and online banking becoming ever easier, what purpose will tellers serve in the future?

The past

Travel back a few decades with me, to a time before mobile and online banking. Perhaps many of you reading this now were there and remember the days where it was impossible to complete simple transactions without the help of a teller. Or maybe you’re more like me and you never knew a life without ATMs and online banking and didn’t interact with a teller until it was absolutely necessary. Regardless of whether you experienced this first hand or not, there were days not too long ago, where every transaction depended on tellers.

The teller role previously was a much more demanding and taxing position. Back in the 80s, when debit cards were just starting to become more commonplace and ATMs were starting to pop up around the world, members went to their tellers for everything. To deposit their checks, get new checks, make payments, make a withdraw, transfer money, check their balances, etc. it all had to be done through a teller.

Angie Douglas, in an article she wrote, reflected on her time working as a teller in the 80s, stating, “I remember paydays being extremely busy. Since debit cards and direct deposit weren’t prevalent yet, members had to come into the credit union to get their money. Members formed lines that snaked around the lobby, down the back stairway, and out the back door to the parking lot, just waiting to cash their paycheck from one of the local businesses.”

However, Angie also noted that despite the long lines, members were excessively patient and kind, never blinking at the long lines (something we all would most likely freak out at today). And tellers on their end, were doing their best to work through hundreds of members waiting to be served. Everything had to be done using old systems or passbooks, meaning each transaction took much longer than we are used to today.

Tellers weren’t just helpful, they were essential. They were absolutely vital to keeping money moving and the economy afloat. No tellers meant no deposits, no transfers or withdrawals, and no payments. The whole system itself might have collapsed without tellers to keep things going.

The present

Now, you’d be hard pressed to think of a scenario where no tellers means the money stops moving. Tellers, while helpful and needed for more difficult tasks here and there, are not single-handedly holding everything together. This means of course, the teller role is obviously now much different. Maybe the general description remains the same (to help members with their transactions) but the method and frequency are completely different.

For example, in the rare case I need to go into a branch to get my banking needs done (I think I’ve gone a whopping total of two times in as many years), I see one, maybe two other members in the lobby at the same time as me. And even with only two tellers usually on staff, my wait is usually no more than a few minutes, and I get my business done in just as much time; a far cry from the deposit lines heading out the door Douglas described during her time as a teller and the need to do everything by hand.

Furthermore, it seems with each new big fintech creation or technological advancement, we find new ways for members to avoid the teller line completely. New inventions like direct deposit have completely eliminated the need for members to come in weekly to cash their checks, not to mention ATMs and Remote Deposit Capture (RDC) exist in case they do have a physical check to cash. Apps like Venmo, CashApp, and Zelle make it easy to transfer funds and send money to people, and thanks to Interactive Teller Machines (ITMs), even those coming into the branches each week can skip the teller line and perform more complex transactions on their own.

But for things like handling member issues, answering questions, getting cashiers checks, and other heftier transactions, most members will still require the assistance of their helpful tellers. They might not just require it either, many members I know still enjoy going to the credit union and chatting with the tellers. Some prefer talking to a person rather than operating a machine. For now, tellers are a nice touch of customer service for those who need it and a safety net should something go wrong, but they are quickly losing their “essential” status.

To their credit though, due to the complexity of systems, constant innovation and product integration, the job of a teller has become more complicated than that of the past. With more moving parts, tellers need an understanding of a wide array of products and transactions, and their roles have started to bleed into the roles of others: sales, lending, accounting, etc.

The future

As previously mentioned, Interactive Teller Machines allow members to not only complete routine transactions they could complete through online or mobile banking or through an ATM, but also allow them to complete more complex and difficult tasks that used to exclusively rely on tellers. According to Equips, a company specializing in technological solutions for banks and credit unions, 75% of transactions at teller lines can be performed by remote teller. The introduction of ITMs means that members can skip the teller line altogether and take full control of their banking needs. In the case they need assistance while using the machine or have a question, the machines are equipped with virtual tellers to provide assistance and answer those questions.

While of course there will be members who don’t care to use the machines or prefer to work with their favorite tellers directly (I mean, who really prefers speaking to a robot when calling a customer service line?), many will find this route more efficient and convenient. And those who don’t want to deal with people will be more likely to use them as well.

Now this doesn’t mean tellers are going out the window. The demand for tellers will most likely always be around, but it’s easy to see how their roles may shift. Instead of needing tellers around the clock, tellers may be assigned to help members use ITMs, answer more complex questions, and help the members who don’t wish to use the machines. Other tellers may find themselves transitioned to a virtual teller role via ITMs. Credit unions and banks may decide to hire fewer tellers, and instead train full time credit union staff to be tellers in case the need arises.

Whether you go into a credit union twice a week or twice a year, are on a first name basis with your tellers or have your mobile banking app ready to go at all times, or find yourself somewhere in between, the future of the teller role is something that involves all credit union members. Where it will go from here is yet to be determined, but it’s safe to say that it won’t stay the same for long, as technology continues to improve, making virtual banking faster, safer, and more convenient.

What are your thoughts on the roles of tellers? Are they soon to become obsolete or will they stand the test of time?

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