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Remote bank teller technology gains ground

ATLANTA — It’s 9 at night and your bank’s been closed for hours. You need to deal with a real live person. A regular ATM won’t cut it.

Banks and credit unions are rolling out new technology that adds Skype-like video connections to oversized ATMs, letting you talk to tellers early in the morning and into the night. With them, you can complete complicated transactions that can’t be done at the ATM, even when the bank is closed.

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The machines use video screens, scanners, and signature pads to connect customers to live humans in call centers, letting them open accounts, transfer funds, or get cash back from deposits, among other things, without an in-person interaction.

The technology is a money-saver for banks, which can open smaller branches with fewer staff. At the same time, the devices make banks more accessible to customers, allowing them extended access to services.

Bank of America Corp. is testing such machines in metro Atlanta, and several smaller banks and credit unions are installing them in drive-through teller lanes or in their lobbies.

With the rise of online and mobile banking technology, the bank branch system already is in flux.

Georgia had 210 fewer branches in March 2013 than it did at the peak in 2008, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in part because of failures since the credit bust, but mostly due to consolidation because of changing habits and technology.

‘Technology’s great, but when you need somebody, you need somebody.’

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Visiting a branch as the preferred method of banking has fallen to 18 percent, from 25 percent in 2010, according to a 2012 survey by the American Bankers Association. Meanwhile 39 percent of people say they prefer to do most of their banking on the Internet. An additional 6 percent prefer to do it on a mobile device.

Still, everything can’t be done online.

“Technology’s great, but when you need somebody, you need somebody,’’ said Lori Martinez, executive vice president at United Bank. She described remote teller devices as a midway point between self-service and full service. The Zebulon, Ga.-based bank, which has branches in metro Atlanta, will begin installing the machines in July.

NCR, one of the companies selling the machines, said 40 banking customers have ordered them and it is in conversations with many more.

For some financial institutions, the machines are a way to extend banking hours and make more efficient use of employees. A branch teller may have a lot of down time, but call center workers with video feeds can switch their work among branches to stay busy. That frees up in-branch employees to sell mortgage or insurance products, which are more lucrative transactions for the bank.

For now, banks say they aren’t using the devices to replace staff. In some cases, they’re hiring more workers to staff call centers, and in others, they’re having tellers work as guides to the new technology, showing customers how to best navigate the devices.

But Brian Bailey, vice president and general manager of branch transformation at NCR, said the technology could lead to staff cuts as it is more widely adopted.

One call center employee can likely handle two machines, Bailey said. Bartow Morgan, chief executive of Brand Bank in Lawrenceville, Ga., thinks one worker may be able to juggle three of the devices.

Brand recently opened an express branch for $450,000. That branch is about one-third the size of a traditional branch and has two video tellers and four employees on-site. A traditional branch could have twice the number of employees and would cost between $3 million and $4 million to build.

Bank of America is testing the machines here and in Boston. Mike Rettaliata, the company’s Georgia-area executive, said they will allow customers access to tellers for an additional eight hours on most weekdays.

He sees the technology as a way to keep customers banking face-to-face, while making it more efficient for them.

Banks rolling out the machines insist they aren’t deemphasizing human interaction.

But that possibility keeps Wells Fargo from joining them so far, said Jonathan Velline, head of ATM banking and store strategy for the bank. A call center employee in another state cannot volunteer in a customer’s local school, he said.

“It’s hard to make a video teller connect with a community banking model,’’ he said.

SunTrust is wary, too, though it plans to test the machines next year.

Even as branch transactions decline, customers who go to branches are likely to prefer eye-to-eye contact over eye-to-screen, said Tom McDermott, senior vice president of retail sales at SunTrust.

“I’m pretty confident people will only do it when humans are not there,’’ he said.

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