Bank tellers are disappearing from Main Street.
They’re not, however, disappearing from banks. At least not yet. As banks go the way of fast food, gas stations, and supermarkets in replacing customer service staff with automated and self-service alternatives, the role of the bank teller has changed.
Where the bank branches still stand as a brick-and-mortar presence, the tellers have started coming out from behind the window with smartphone or tablet in hand to help customers help themselves.
But with thousands of those branches closing, you’re more likely to find a teller online now. They’ve become the human face of an increasingly virtual world. It’s a role exemplified in Bank of America’s new experiment with hybrid banking, small unstaffed mini-branches that offer a direct link to tellers via video conference. These “robo banks”, however, may be only a temporary refuge from the eventual rise of the banking chatbots.
Bank of America’s Robo Bank
Bank tellers as a collective are in something of a state of limbo. There are plenty of indicators that their jobs should begin rapidly decreasing in the near future—40,000 positions are expected to be lost by 2024.
The carnage, however, hasn’t started just yet.
While more than 8,000 U.S. bank branches have closed over the past decade (an average of more than 150 per state) and more than 90% of transactions now take place online, the number of bank employees has remained relatively stable at more than 2 million people across the country.
This uneasy truce between the in-person and online banking worlds has given Bank of America reason to experiment with automated centers, or “robo banks”. These tiny branches take up a fraction of the floor space of a full branch, but still accommodate the 1 million people who visit Bank of America branches every day by offering a place to sit down face-to-face with bank staff.
Now, though, that staff member is on the other end of a video call. Bank of America has opened three of these mini-banks this year, and each pairs traditional ATM services with the full range of personal services, jus delivered online. It seems like a compromise, however, that can’t last long.
Cashless Society Doesn’t Need Bank Branches
The obvious point of tension in the robo bank setup is that it provides a real world presence for a virtual transaction. Of course it’s nice to have a dedicated, secured place to sit and talk financing, home loans, overdrafts or any other complex banking issues—access to the video conferencing link will surely be granted only by use of a bank card and overlooked by security cameras. However, when that same face-to-face conversation can be had anywhere on a mobile phone it’s hard to imagine banks will keep paying rent for a brick-and-mortar presence.
Everyone has a mobile phone nowadays, and every phone is just an app away from hosting video calling. Millennials, who make up the largest generational demographic in the U.S., overwhelming support online transactions and when they control America’s purse strings in just a few years the banks are going to be very eager to please them.
There’s no way they’re going to favor making a special trip to the bank over simply finding a quiet spot to make a video call. In such a reality the robo bank would appear to the last gasp of an old world, not the birth of a new one.
Whether or not banks retain a brick-and-mortar presence, traditional bank tellers may also have to compete with chatbots.
Rise of the Bank Bots
The only reason chatbots don’t already dominate our online customer service lives is that they currently have the learning ability of a parrot. Microsoft recently had to withdraw its Tay robot within a day of deployment because it began spouting misogynistic and racist comments.
While the current generation of bots are little more than voice-activated search engines, it would be short-sighted to think they won’t evolve. And quickly. That’d be like our ancestors saying TV would never evolve beyond black and white.
Once the bots develop a little more common sense they’ll be able to handle most of our banking queries, especially since most financial applications and processes are rigidly tied to forms and formulations.
That’s the real bad news for bank tellers. They may have a place of refuge online from the disappearing brick-and-mortar branches, but they’ll be hard-pressed to prove personality and empathy is more of an asset than robot slave labor.
There’s clearly a need for long–term partnerships with individuals and business as financial advisors, but that’s not really the role of the teller. The advent of the robo bank may actually be the last stand of the teller, and they’ve already been pushed out of even the mini-bank branch.