When executives at Bath, Maine-based Five County Credit Union began planning for a new branch in a 500-square-foot area inside the Skowhegan, Maine, Wal-Mart, they knew they needed to think creatively about how to serve customers in the space. In such confined quarters, they simply didn't have room for the components of a traditional branch.
The credit union already had branches in five other Wal-Marts, but it never had been challenged with such a limited footprint, according to Mike Foley, VP of sales and business development for Five County ($186 million in assets). The institution found its solution in the recently patented uGenius Video Banking System, developed by Sandy, Utah-based uGenius Technology. With the system, a customer uses a personal teller machine (PTM) in the branch to interact with a live teller who's located remotely in a video call center.
The uGenius system enables functionality beyond videoconferencing by giving the teller remote control of PTM peripherals, says Gene Pranger, uGenius developer and CEO. "They have the ability to not only talk with customers, but to be able to receive cash, checks and any type of deposit, and to dispense cash, checks and coins directly to the customer," he explains. "They can do almost any type of transaction that a traditional teller can have in a branch."
The Skowhegan Wal-Mart branch houses two uGenius PTMs, along with a traditional ATM and Gene Pranger-designed SmartOffices -- which he describes as a "flexible furniture and technology solution" that allows customers to interact with specialists and open new accounts via videoconferencing.
"We felt this scenario would allow us to still provide a full-service location with our expanded hours, but without a lot of the traditional requirements, whether they be an actual teller line or a manager's office or the safe room," explains Five County's Foley. "We get a lot of the same function but within a smaller space."
So far, the new in-store branch has been well received since opening in April, says Foley. While he declines to provide specific metrics, he says customers are using the uGenius PTMs for transactions including deposits, check cashing and transfers, and are opening new accounts in the SmartOffices.
Beyond conquering size constraints, the uGenius technology has enabled Five County to expand into northern Maine, while centralizing its resources at the same time. "We knew we'd be able to go into it without having to hire, for example, five employees at a branch location," explains Foley. "We leveraged our staff by focusing that employee growth on the call center side."
Because Five County's call center already was open to support branches during expanded hours, no big modifications were needed to staff the PTMs, Foley relates. The biggest adjustment for employees, he says, came with the addition of video. "They needed to change their mind-set from taking inbound phone calls or making outbound phone calls to face-to-face interactions via the video banking system," he says. "They already had the knowledge and the skill set to handle the PTM transactions."
In terms of infrastructure to support the system, Five County chose to go with fiber optics instead of the T1 network that the uGenius system usually runs on. "We wanted to make sure that the audio and video quality were as crisp as possible," notes Foley.
Five County was the first institution in Maine to use uGenius, according to UGenius' Pranger. He says plans are in the works for another institution, Mid-Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union, to install uGenius PTMs in a Wal-Mart in Kingston, N.Y., in the third quarter of 2012. He also reports that uGenius is expanding its reach through a partnership with NCR (Duluth, Ga.) that will introduce joint ATM/PTMs -- known as the NCR APTRA Interactive Teller -- using uGenius software on NCR hardware.
Madhavi Mantha, principal and head of banking research at Novarica (New York), says that while video banking is at an early stage, implementations such as Five County's show its potential to provide face-to-face interaction in a way that's distributed and cost effective. "They're still able to deliver a relevant experience to the customer," she says, "even if the resources aren't exactly in front of them." Mantha notes that, as with any financial institution investment, the further adoption of video solutions will depend on "where video lands on the hierarchy of competing interests when it comes to capital distribution." For Five County Credit Union, it appears to be toward the top.
On June 6, the credit union opened a freestanding branch that also forgoes traditional teller lines in favor of uGenius PTMs. "We've built these two branches entirely around these machines," says Five County's Foley. "We believe in them, and we believe that's the direction banking will take in the years ahead."