As banking institutions become more and more automated, are tellers valued more or less compared to digital disruptors? 

When bringing that question to managers at South Sound financial institutions, their responses are varied, although what holds true is that customers still appreciate a one-on-one personal connection to their bank.

“We as financial institutions have provided our customer with reasons they don’t need to come into the bank,” says Aaron Myers, human resources director at Olympia Federal Savings. “We have ATMs and online bill pay. So, we really value the time when a customer comes in. We want to provide them with exceptional service. We always want to be able to provide them with a person that can provide them with answers.”

Over the past several years, Olympia Federal, true to national trends, has witnessed fewer check-cashing transactions at branch locations. This change in customer behavior motivated the company to phase out its teller model and move toward a “universal banker” model.

“Universal bankers can do more than a simple cash transaction,” explains Myers. “They can initiate consumer lines of credit, or establish a consumer or business account.”

Based on the number of transactions, Myers says there may still be a need for tellers at some branches. Thusly, Olympia Federal currently employs 14 universal bankers and 14 tellers. Three of its branches, however, are already 100 percent on the universal banker model: Yelm, Tumwater and Belfair.

“This has to do with transactional volume,” says Myers. “If we don’t have a lot of teller transactions, we don’t want to staff it in a traditional model.”

Marilyn Hoppen, senior vice president and human resources director at Kitsap Bank, says bank branches are changing physically. And this is having a direct impact on the role and responsibility of the job traditionally known as “teller.” 

At Kitsap, for example, such employees are now referred to as “client service specialists.”

This new name reflects a change in responsibilities for individuals who fill this role. Hoppen says client service specialists, like universal bankers, are taking on a hybrid role. At Kitsap, that involves helping customers with bank technology and specialized bank products, in addition to routine services such as cashing checks and processing deposits.

At Bank of America, the pool of tellers — in this case, “client service representatives” — is likewise shrinking at branch locations, which executive Nathan Nguyen predictably attributes in large part to the pivot toward mobile app use.

“We have 22 million mobile app users,” says Nguyen, senior vice president of consumer banking and Merrill Edge. “The day-to-day transactions are shifting to that digital platform.”

Meanwhile, at Wells Fargo, no title change has taken place. Tia Owens, a Wells Fargo recruiter, says tellers remain critical to the success of the bank.

“Our tellers build relationships,” says Owens. “We don’t have a decrease in the amount of tellers we’re looking for, because an ATM can’t build that relationship.”

She says Wells Fargo, though classified as a large national bank, prides itself as a community bank. As such, the teller position is crucial as both a representative of and a conduit to a branch’s community, and Owens says her institution is hiring candidates who reflect the community a branch is located in.

“Wells Fargo values diversity and inclusion,” says Owens. “We have several diversity training programs. We want our team to be able to work together and learn from each other. We want talent that values diversity.”

Nguyen concurs, saying that, in a shrinking pool, strong emphasis falls on a client service representative’s ability to build relationships with clients and make sure a client’s needs are understood fully. Candidates filling CSR jobs need to take on the role of a relationship banker and be able to listen and ask the right questions to meet the needs of the client.

Gone, then, are the days of simple behind-the-window customer service training. Nguyen says CSRs start out in a comprehensive onboard training program. Every team member, he says, has an individual development plan. 

“CSRs come in and learn our culture. It is relationship-focused. Our CSRs are equipped to have quality conversations.”

At Wells Fargo, tellers are in a virtual classroom environment for two weeks. In addition to participating in small group instruction, tellers are paired with a specific instructor. If a teller is interested in a specialized role, Owens says they can enroll in subject matter expert courses. Wells Fargo, she adds, also manages a corporate library where tellers and other staff can check out books on various subjects to foster continued learning.

“We know that in order to retain and motivate our team members we want them to know we care about them and value them,” says Owens. “We want our team to feel like they are a resource and we invest in them.”

Hoppen at Kitsap Bank says client service specialists are provided comprehensive and intensive classroom training.

“This includes everything from cash handling, software training, and policy and procedures, to customer service skills and product knowledge,” says Hoppen. “In addition, they receive training on basic knowledge and compliance in order to keep the bank safe and sound. New client service specialists are then assigned a trainer/mentor that spends two to four weeks with them.”

Meanwhile, Olympia Federal’s universal banker training program spans two months and incorporates a combination of classroom work, some on-the-job training, and some online.

“We’re transitioning tellers into the universal banker role,” says Myers. “The universal banker has been here a while. They’re fairly capable and competent and continue to assist the customers. We’re elevating their service level.”