Bulky Teller Counters are Ruining the Branch Experience

When customers walk into a bank branch, what is the first thing they usually see? Is it a friendly greeter? An open space with an information desk and comfortable waiting area? A digital check-in kiosk directing them to the right person to help them with their banking needs? Most likely it is none of those things: they see a line of people waiting to walk up to a large, bulky teller counter. This has been the status quo for decades now, but as banks consider what this design layout says to customers, the teller counter is increasingly in question.

The problem with this traditional layout is that it indicates the bank branch is a place to complete a banking transaction. What’s so wrong with that? Well, 20 years ago, not much. But given that transactions are increasingly moving to mobile, ATM, and online processes, where does that leave a bank that’s all about transactions? With fewer customers in line, fewer branch visits, branches closing, fewer opportunities to build strong relationships with customers.

When customers walk into a branch, banks should be communicating that it is a place for much more than depositing funds or making a payment. Removing the teller counter and either placing it further towards the back or side of the branch, or eliminating it altogether, means something else gets placed front and center: we think it should be expert advice. Banks need to reclaim their position as trusted financial advisors, with greater attention to personalized services as a way to drive greater engagement with customers, ultimately provide a wider range of services to a greater number of people, and provide additional Teller Window for the convenience of everyone.

Here is how removing the teller desk might look and contribute to repositioning the bank branch.

OPTION 1: No teller desk at all

This is a radical departure for many to consider. Without a teller counter, what would a branch even look like? Is it even possible?

PNC Bank is the process of removing the teller line and tellers from some of their branches. In their place are more highly skilled staff who are capable of handling more advice-based services and complicated transactions, while ATM’s with enhanced capabilities to handle day-to-day transactions. It still allows customers to complete transactions in branch, but the ATM’s are not the main focus of the layout, or the featured service. The focus is on the staff and higher-level financial services. It tells customers the branch is a place to discuss solutions to financial concerns, not merely a place to cash a check.

Potential risks: Customers may enter such a branch and be confused about where to go. A concierge desk or check-in kiosk at the branch entrance can direct customers to the correct staff member or waiting area, and help onboard with the enhanced ATM if needed.

OPTION 2: Exchanging the counter for pods or stations

Another option that innovative banks are embracing is trading the traditional bulky teller counter for pods or stations that remove the barrier between the staff and customers. Now that cash can be distributed from a secure machine rather than a teller’s drawer, the security concerns that required a barrier are no longer relevant. Pods or stations feel more personal, and can be placed along the side of a branch, opening up the central space as we did for Regions Bank. Using a tablet and sitting beside or at an angle, rather than across from customers, allows for a more personal, intimate interaction.

Potential risks: Money is a sensitive topic, and designs with pods or stations tend to be more open. Privacy can be addressed through the use of space, screens, moveable walls or separate areas for certain kinds of transactions. There needs to be ample room for staff to speak about personal financial issues without the concern that the conversation may be overheard. VIP areas are also an option for larger branches that have the additional benefit of recognizing the bank’s most desirable clients.

OPTION 3: ATM-only microbranches

Bank of America recently opened several micro-branches with ATMs and video conferencing to a virtual teller – no staff are on site. Customers can make an appointment online or through their banking app, and entrance to the location is restricted by passcodes which are sent to the customer’s mobile device. While there is an opportunity to leverage this kind of branch for remote communities that cannot support a typical branch, we’re uncertain whether customers will make use of this new concept. Customers can already video-conference from home or from their own devices, so there is little advantage to doing so at another location. Additionally, one of the points of difference banks can leverage within the branch is the face-to-face interaction that helps build relationships. These micro-branches are brand new and we are not confident they have staying power.

The teller counter is a relic from the past that was used to protect tellers and the cash they kept on hand, and to serve customers with basic transactions. As banks aim to refocus the branch away from a transaction-centric model, moving transactions to the sidelines will make way for advice and higher-level services to take center-stage.