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Jerry Silva, TowerGroup
Jerry Silva, TowerGroup
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Automated devices like smart cameras, cash dispensers, wireless terminals and teller-assist stations can make the branch more effective and better for the customer.

The next time you walk into a bank branch, look up and smile ... there may be someone (or something) looking back and watching your every move.

No, it's not the normal security cameras located over the teller window. These new robot eyes track your every movement, from the moment you come through the doors, walk around the lobby and conduct your business, until you leave. In fact, there may be many such robots in the branch, assisting you and the branch during your visit to ensure that the branch is operating as effectively as possible.

By now, we all know that branches are back in fashion with the bank -- never having gone out of fashion with the customer. But one of the most interesting aspects of branch technology renewal is not the automation at the teller or customer service representative, but the deployment of sensors and "assist" devices in the branch that are raising the bar on customer service levels and increasing the efficiency of the brick-and-mortar channel. Automated devices like smart cameras, cash dispensers, wireless terminals and teller-assist stations may be the key to making the branch a more effective and satisfying experience for both customer and bank staff.

The word "robot" was first used in a work of science fiction written by Karel Capek in 1920. The word comes from the Czech noun "robota," meaning "labor." Modern definitions include devices that run automatically without human intervention that may have artificial intelligence, and that may respond to sensory input. Using these definitions, it is not unreasonable to characterize some of the new branch technologies as robots -- autonomous systems that sense, guide and aid in customer interaction.

Atlanta-based Brickstream Corp. has developed an intelligent branch monitoring solution that starts with ceiling-mounted cameras that track customer movement and uses that information to report on a variety of customer behaviors. The system tracks customers as they arrive at the branch and records their movement once inside. While the system does not (yet) identify individuals, the aggregate information is very useful to branch managers when they want to quantify how long teller lines are, or how many people walk over to a marketing display, or how long customers waited before seeing a representative. In this respect, the system acts very much like the call center's interactive voice response (IVR) system, keeping track of queues and response times. This information is extremely useful in making staffing decisions, as it accurately quantifies the customer experience.

Physical branch design is also aided by customer movement information, as branch managers can use the information to place marketing materials or self-service devices based on branch flow. An interesting use of the monitoring system is to track customers when they abandon the branch. As many banks tie customer visits to sales, it is valuable to know how many customers walk in and leave because of perceived wait times. This is information that cannot be consistently gathered today, and that can lead to regaining lost opportunities.

When it comes to offering a more personalized experience at the branch, technology provider Q-Matic has a solution that identifies customers (perhaps at a concierge or greeter desk), can recall personalized information about that customer and can act on that specific customer information. In a private banking situation, for example, the system can identify an important customer, send a message to the branch manager alerting him or her to the VIP's presence and, while the concierge directs the customer into a waiting lounge, can link with the video monitor in the lounge and present some marketing material that is specific to that customer's needs. Similar to the camera-based solution, the Q-Matic technology helps branch executives deal more effectively with their customers, improving satisfaction while making the most efficient use of branch personnel.

Self-service has always been an important aspect of the bank's attempt to lower customer service costs. The ATM is the first, and perhaps the best, example of a self-service device that was aimed at adding convenience to the customer's banking needs while decreasing costs for the bank. Unfortunately, customers never fully displaced their need for the human teller, and costs went up as banks had to continue to support both channels. But today's "cousins" of the ATM are leaving the branch foyer and coming into the service areas to focus on assisting the customer, and customers are learning to love these new machines.

Some customers will find small devices that look like ATM/kiosk hybrids lining the teller windows. These machines will identify the customer through a normal card swipe, much as the ATM does, and will accept cash or checks in order to prepare their deposit transaction before even reaching the teller. Key to this device is the fact that, unlike the ATM, the teller is nearby and available to help should the customer have a problem. By the time customers reach the window, all of their transaction documentation has been prepared, and only a cursory review by the teller is necessary before committing the transaction. Likewise, automated devices can fulfill a teller-based transaction by moving cash disbursement off the line and onto self-service devices. Not only does an automated cash disbursement system offload the teller (who can then move on to the next customer), it also greatly decreases the chance of error by removing the human element from handling cash and coin.

These devices are entirely optional, as the customer may choose to wait for an open teller. But, over time and after observing other customers using these machines and experiencing shorter wait times, most customers will readily accept this assistance. Does the scenario seem familiar? It is because airlines have been using the same assist paradigm, to great success, for years.

In seeming contradiction to the stationary devices so far, wireless technology is being deployed at many branch sites, allowing staff to wander among customers wherever they may be. Concierge desks no longer limit the movement of staff, as they can greet and guide customers from anywhere in the branch. Sales representatives are more effective if they can get out from behind their desks during busy branch times and serve customers while they wait in line. Much in the same way that teller-assist devices prepare transactions, so too can branch staff pre-stage customer transactions as they wait in line, or even re-direct customers to automated channels, or even pull customers out of line if they are best served by other representatives at the branch. Ultimately, this kind of technology will be carried by the customers themselves, who will pre-stage transactions perhaps before they even come into the branch.

These autonomous technologies are starting to make their way into branch banking. And unlike the relatively heavy-handed approach that banks took with ATMs in the 1970s, today's automata is cleverly woven into the human aspects of branch banking, reassuring the customer while helping the bank achieve greater efficiencies. After some time, customers will become not only tolerant of these helpful devices, but will actually seek them out -- and in doing so, will make the branch a much more pleasant and effective way to interact with the bank.

This article is based on TowerGroup research by Jerry Silva, a senior analyst in the Delivery Channels research service at TowerGroup, an advisory research and consulting firm focused on the global financial services industry. Mr. Silva can be reached at jsilva@towergroup.com.

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