ATMs with a Human Touch: How New ATMs May Replace Bank Tellers

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Soon, a human face might be staring back at you from these ATMs.

ATMs are getting a new face — literally, a human face. Some bank customers are already encountering what might be called ATM cyborgs, in which a machine includes a screen showing a bank teller’s head. The teller, in a remote location connected via webcam, is able to perform tasks that traditionally have been handled only by bank employees in person, such as check cashing. The system allows banks to save money that might have been spent staffing individual branches, at the same time that customers can interact and be served by an actual human being, rather than just another computer.

The webcam-enabled ATM is just one of the methods banks are testing in their ever-evolving quest to trim their costs without losing customers. “Banks are under a lot of pressure to make their branches profitable,” says Jeff Dudash, spokesman for ATM manufacturer NCR Corporation. Next-generation ATMs not only let banks and credit unions cut down on the number of tellers needed at branches, they allow financial institutions to offer face-to-face services outside of regular business hours. There’s also a security advantage, since a would-be bank robber can’t physically threaten a teller who’s not there in person.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, some of America’s biggest banks are experimenting with these high-tech ATMs. And the experiments seem to be working: After installing machines that cash checks in a small number of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. branches, the number of check-cashing transactions processed by tellers fell 40% at the locations.

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Perhaps the most intriguing next-gen ATM is the model that essentially removes the “A” from the acronym. The concept of an ATM that’s connected to a remote live, human teller was pioneered by a company called uGenius Technology, whose “personal teller machines” let customers interact with a teller via two-way video. Pretty much any traditional face-to-face bank transaction can be conducted this way, including depositing cash or checks, paying bills, transferring money between accounts, and cashing checks. Customers can use these machines even if they don’t have their debit cards handy, thanks to ID- and signature-scanning panels. The technology has been used for a few years by a handful of credit unions around the country.

Recently, uGenius partnered with ATM maker NCR to add the personal teller element to its latest interactive machines, which can be installed almost anywhere—giving banks the possibility of offering live human customer service even if there isn’t a branch nearby. NCR’s Dudash says the company started selling what it calls “interactive teller” ATMs in March, and the machines are advanced enough so that people can even open new accounts and originate loans. The company already has signed on six banks and credit unions, Dudash says.

Those six will probably have plenty of company in the future. Bank of America tested video tellers in four markets last year and is currently reviewing the results of its tests, says BofA spokeswoman Tara Burke.

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Some financial institutions that have been early adopters of personal teller machines have found they’ve been able to stay “open” for longer hours, even offering 24-hour live human service. Who really needs to speak with a bank teller at 11 p.m.? Apparently, lots of people. Trade magazine The Financial Brand reports that after one credit union installed a virtual teller system, 60% of its transactions took place outside of standard business hours.