Inside the evolving roles of community bank tellers

Today’s tellers meet very different customer needs than they did just a decade ago. In the wake of trends like falling in-branch transactions and the rise of digital services, some community banks are filling the gap by retooling tellers with an array of new titles and skills.

By William Atkinson

Ask a community banker how they got their foot in the door in the industry, and you’ll likely hear one answer more than any other: “I started as a teller.”

But this vital entry-level position looks much different today than it did when many community bankers got their start. In recent years, as more straightforward bank transactions have moved online or to ATMs and mobile applications, many community banks have reinvented their traditional teller positions. Today, they are flexible, multipurpose or more service-focused universal bankers, relationship bankers or concierge bankers.

There’s good reason for this. While teller transactions were already dropping, the pandemic forced many customers to embrace online banking in place of in-branch banking. This has had a significant impact on tellers across the industry. In fact, even before COVID-19, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there will be 15% fewer bank tellers in 2029 than there were in 2019.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites several reasons for this, from the rise of online and mobile banking to a declining number of branches across the industry, which limits the number of teller transactions. There’s also automation technology, including enhanced ATMs and video kiosks, which make tellers more productive and allow them to focus on more complex, hands-on tasks with customers.

“When an employee can perform several functions, you can pay them more, provide better options for growth and, in most cases, you will have a more engaged and fulfilled employee.”
—Craig Buse, Springs Valley Bank & Trust Company

These trends point to the fact there will be fewer tellers in the future, but they also reveal how community banks are seizing opportunities to help their tellers meet modern banking needs and make a bigger impact on customers. While fewer customers may require regular in-person teller transactions, those they do need must stand out. This is where universal bankers, relationship bankers or concierge bankers come in.

Tellers Say…

“Moving to a universal banker [role] allowed me to grow my knowledge of banking and helped to expand customer relationships.”
–Nicole Ford, Operations Manager, Springs Valley Bank & Trust Company

“I love it when a customer comes in with a challenging situation, such as a debit card decline or an online banking error, and I am able to explain to them why it happened and how to fix it. Another aspect that is incredibly fulfilling is when customers come in and ask specifically for you time after time. It is a great feeling when [they] trust you and are comfortable enough with you to keep coming back.”
–Daniel Bennett, Personal Banker, First Federal Bank & Trust

What’s in a name?

What do these new titles mean in practice? In most cases, such a person is a cross-trained employee who can act as a teller but can also process loans, open and close accounts, and/or perform several other functions that customers want and need from their local community bank branch.

At Springs Valley Bank & Trust Company in Jasper, Ind., universal bankers were first introduced in 2015, but it took three years of tweaking job titles and marketing the positions to get them in full swing. The main reason for the change was to serve customers better. “Our goal [was and is] to have a universal banker who can take care of almost any question, transaction, etc.,” says Craig Buse, senior executive vice president, chief lending officer and chief operating officer at the $495 million-asset community bank. “We also found it is a way to attract and retain high-level talent. When an employee can perform several functions, you can pay them more, provide better options for growth and, in most cases, you will have a more engaged and fulfilled employee.”

Transitioning away from tellers in 2018 was part of the strategic outlook for Old National Bank, which is based in Evansville, Ind. One of its leadership principles is “delighting clients” and exceeding their expectations, so instead of tellers, the $23.7 billion-asset community bank relies on client service representatives and relationship bankers.

Early in the transition process, the bank recognized a change in client behavior and wanted to offer a more customer-focused role to serve needs above and beyond simple transactions.

“One way to do this is to offer more robust service at every opportunity,” says Christine Hobrough, community banking president for Old National Bank. “Our client service representative serves all transactional needs, plus an array of servicing needs.”

Forging new job duties

From assisting with loans to helping customers open a credit card, the sky is the limit when it comes to what these new kinds of tellers can do within a community bank.

At Springs Valley Bank & Trust, universal bankers have responsibilities beyond traditional teller duties, including IRA management, opening new accounts, e-services (cash management, online banking, and debit and credit cards), consumer lending and even the ability to close home equity lines of credit (HELOCs).

Tellers Say…

“I don’t feel rushed when I move with the client to the conversation space. I spend more time with each client getting to know them and understanding their needs.”
–Jeff Barthel, Relationship Banker, Old National Bank

Old National Bank’s relationship bankers serve the deposit and credit needs of all the bank’s clients. They often partner with in-house experts in wealth management, treasury management and investments, to name a few. “These bankers also work closely with community leaders and local nonprofits to meet broader community needs for financial education,” Hobrough says.

When Old National Bank made its change to the relationship banking model, leaders in every market worked closely with all team members to ensure a smooth transition. Leaders taught banking center team members how to interact with each client. They demonstrated how to greet by the door, uncover the immediate need or request, and then move to the appropriate space in the banking center. This could be a desk, office or workstation, as opposed to the traditional teller line.

“By focusing on cross-training, we’ve been able to educate, coach and mentor bankers who have the right skills and personality to build lasting relationships with our clients in an environment of confidence, value and trust.”
—Noelle Krempasky, Fidelity Bank

The tech innovating teller services

Today’s marketplace is full of technologies that are automating and digitizing traditional teller services. For example, Springs Valley Bank & Trust Company in Jasper, Ind., is employing interactive teller machines, or ITMs, which typically offer ATM services in addition to issuing checks, loan payments and much more. Other capabilities, such as online account opening and remote deposit capture, cut down on the number of teller interactions.

“We are in the process of using the interactive teller machines for extended hours,” says Craig Buse, senior executive vice president, chief lending officer and chief operating officer.

The bank had even considered using them as a stand-alone branch in rural markets or as replacements to drive-thrus. “ITMs and the other digital products continue to pay dividends as we deal with this pandemic and the transition to a more virtual experience,” he adds.

In addition to its mobile application and online banking, Old National Bank in Evansville, Ind., is investing in its ATM network and rethinking how its transaction services are situated inside its banking centers. The bank has opted for more open pods instead of the barriers of traditional teller lines as part of its transition to client service representatives, which can handle any customer transaction.

“We continue to update our locations by replacing traditional teller lines with modern pods that allow team members to move freely through the banking center, meeting the client when they arrive,” says Christine Hobrough, community banking president.

How to retool tellers

Tellers Say…

“Once a personal banker has moved to the universal banker position, it provides the customer with a banker who can service their financial needs in all aspects—simple transactions, e-banking, opening deposit accounts [and] consumer loans. Being a universal banker has given me the opportunity to build the relationship with the customer on all levels.”
–Angie Jones, Retail Market Manager, Springs Valley Bank & Trust Company

Transitioning tellers into other positions or giving them new job duties is often a multiyear process at community banks. At $2.3 billion-asset Fidelity Bank in Scranton, Pa., which converted its tellers to relationship bankers, cross-training was its key to success.

“By focusing on cross-training, we’ve been able to educate, coach and mentor bankers who have the right skills and personality to build lasting relationships with our clients in an environment of confidence, value and trust,” says Noelle Krempasky, assistant vice president and marketing manager. “The majority of our bankers are cross-trained to handle the needs of our clients.”

Training was also vital for Springs Valley Bank & Trust during its transition to universal bankers.

“It takes a lot of time to train individuals on all of the different areas of responsibility,” Buse says. “It really came down to continuous improvement and training. Once our staff was able to perform the functions, the rest took care of itself from a customer perspective.”

The investment has been worth it, as the community bank is happy with the results. “Customers are able to get taken care of in a timelier fashion and consumer loans are now done on the front line, allowing mortgage lenders to concentrate on mortgages,” Buse adds. “We can also pick up more leads with more knowledgeable staff. Employees have more empowerment, more ability to grow and better compensation.”

Boosting customer satisfaction

Tellers Say…

“More problems are solved in the banking center when they meet with a relationship banker. The client doesn’t feel pressure to move aside for another waiting client.”
–Kelly Carpenter, Relationship Banker, Old National Bank

At the core of these new teller-type positions is a focus on meeting customer needs. However, it also benefits both the community bank, which has a flexible and more efficient team member who can handle all sorts of transactions, and the employee, who has a more dynamic role that allows them to be the in-person face of the organization.

“Today, our bankers feel empowered to help their clients,” Krempasky says. She says some of the traditional red tape and waiting times are minimized because bankers at Fidelity Bank can make decisions and assist clients on the spot. In turn, clients view their bankers as trusted advisors who can handle a host of topics and provide guidance and support during clients’ journeys to financial wellness.

“For instance, we’ve allowed bankers to make decisions on matching CD [certificates of deposit] rates right within the client conversation,” Krempasky says. “The banker knows the criteria to look for and can match the rates if warranted, without calling a manager.”

Responsibilities don’t end there. “Bankers offer clients appropriate solutions to meet their financial goals of saving money, making money, protecting their money and saving time,” she adds.

“We have experienced stronger client satisfaction and deeper client relationships through these changes,” Hobrough says. “Our CSRs and relationship bankers have the skills to build clients for life because they are more knowledgeable about a wider variety of financial products and services.”

Why one community bank is keeping its tellers

While large numbers of community banks have been making transitions from traditional teller roles to more holistic roles, one bank that continues to find value in traditional tellers is First Federal Bank & Trust in Sheridan, Wyo.

“We still do hire the traditional role,” says Kristen Butler, chief operations officer and senior vice president. “This is largely due to the volume of customers we serve. If we did not, our wait times and complaints would elevate and ultimately result in customers leaving our bank.”

In addition, the community bank believes in having employees—as opposed to hiring automated call centers—answer the phone. “Therefore, we do have more tellers than the average bank our size, so we can operate a call center,” she says. “All our tellers rotate between the call center and other locations, so this allows them to be cross-trained in several areas due to the number of questions they receive.”

To provide some distinction in roles, the bank has two teller positions: tellers and lead tellers. “Our lead tellers are groomed to assist the assistant branch operations manager with certain tasks, so that the manager can focus on cross-training and leadership growth for their staff,” Butler says. “Our lead tellers conduct audits, ensure the vault and tellers balance daily, fill/balance our ATMs, train staff, scan deposits, etc.”

Traditional tellers have a lot of responsibilities, too. “We believe in cross-training our staff,” Butler says. “They have the ability to take on more advanced requests, such as closing accounts, ordering debit cards, increasing limits, etc. The only part we are restricting during cross-training is opening new accounts, since that takes more time.” For that, the bank uses dedicated personal bankers, she adds.

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.