Carolina Premier Bank

Relationship banking takes a robotic spin—in a good way

By Michael Blankenheim

Carolina Premier Bank, based out of Charlotte, N.C., has opened its first out-of-market branch in Washington, D.C. Doing business as Premara Bank, the uber high-tech branch, located in a high-traffic location near the White House, added a chatty roaming robot to its front-line workforce.

But why employ a robot at a high-touch, relationship-oriented community bank?

For Carolina Premier Bank’s president and CEO, John S. Kreighbaum, the answer isn’t so complicated. Tech-savvy customers are always looking for new channels to connect with people, including their community bankers, he says.

“Any technology just augments the efficiency of how we can more intimately interact with our customers,” he says. “We use electronics not to say so much that we are advanced, but they become tools, if you will, props, to deliver services to our customers that they don’t get someplace else.”

PremBot, more mascot than titanium slave, is not a robot in the classic science fiction sense. It has no moving arms, and there is no danger that it will accost customers, or anyone else for that matter. That’s because the roving machine doesn’t operate on its own internal intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Instead, equipped with state-of-the art communications equipment, it is what Forbes magazine describes as the latest in telepresence robots that exist to ease the burden of face-to-face meetings for on-the-go transactions. The 5-foot, 2-inch tall, 95-pound PremBot consists of a video screen atop a motorized platform. The “face” of PremBot that people see on the video screen belongs to a remote operator located in the bank’s Charlotte headquarters.

Premara Bank plans to focus on serving the numerous advocacy groups, nonprofits and trade associations that make up a big share of Washington’s economic landscape. Eventually, the bank may open other branches in the region.

PremBot, Kreighbaum says, is the only such robot being employed by an American bank. Its batteries last eight hours and can propel PremBot at 1.5 meters per second, roughly human walking speed. It has six microphones and two high-definition cameras that provide the operator with a 170-degree view of its retail banking universe.

In the morning, PremBot, produced by Suitable Technologies Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., greets passersby outside the $240 million-asset community bank. Later in the day, it wheels about inside the branch greeting, serving and guiding customers. It can offer customers a cup of coffee and then help them sign into their online banking accounts. If a customer prefers “live” help with one of its human co-workers, PremBot will arrange for that with machine-like efficiency, too.

This where the “personality” of the robot’s operator is pivotal, Kreighbaum says. The community bank held auditions for employees to become PremBot operators, and a team of six was chosen. “Everything about PremBot relates to the improvisational ability of staff. They all know how to stop someone on the street and start a conversation. They are also all skilled bankers and know how to answer any questions on banking.”

The robot fits the luxurious setting of the community bank’s Washington branch and the bank’s overall mission, which includes nurturing high-touch, high-tech relationship banking, says Kreighbaum. “The image of our bank in Washington, the architectural design of it, is extremely futuristic,” he says. “The lighting, the layout, the fireplaces and the chandeliers in the windows are all elements you do not see in commercial banks today, and probably not in a retail establishment.”

With numerous bits of technology located in the bank’s walls and desks, Kreighbaum describes the new branch as the “bank of tomorrow.”

While community banks emphasize face-to-face relationship banking, he says, PremBot’s presence should enhance that concept, but only in a more snazzy high-tech way. “It gives customers another choice as to how to interact with his community banker.”

Michael Blankenheim is a writer in Bowie, Md.