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Need a teller at the ATM? Push the button

Machines’ video links promise efficiencies for banks

By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / March 26, 2012
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At a hotel conference room in downtown Boston, Tim Fikse, walked up to a gray, box-shaped automatic teller machine. But instead of swiping a card and following the instructions, Fikse touched the screen, and the image of a teller filled the display.

“Hello. What can I do for you today,’’ the woman said in a lilting Scottish accent.

“I’d like to make a deposit,’’ replied Fikse, a marketing manager for NCR Corp., the machine’s manufacturer.

Meet the future of ATMs.

After years of advances that have allowed customers to do their banking without human interaction, the next step in ATM technology could put people back into the picture. And as Fikse demonstrated to dozens of bankers, there could be advantages to that.

Instead of using a debit card, for example, customers can show their driver’s license or other ID card, as they would with traditional tellers. They can ask for advice, get immediate answers to their questions, or just chat. And, if they want more privacy to discuss their finances, NCR has added a telephone handset to its Interactive Teller machine.

“This is definitely what’s next’’ in the evolution of ATMs, said Robert Landstein, chief information officer for First Trade Union Bank in Boston, who attended the demonstration at the Boston Marriott Copley Place this month. “I think it’s intriguing technology.’’

This latest ATM has not arrived at New England banks, but it could be coming in the not-so-distant future. NCR, the world’s largest ATM maker, this month installed the first four machines at a Delaware credit union, and it says a half-dozen other financial institutions in the United States, Canada, and Australia have placed orders, mostly for branch lobbies and drive-through windows.

NCR executives say the new machines promise to give banks a cost-effective way to let customers talk to tellers after hours or avoid waiting in line during normal banking hours. Landstein said First Trade Union Bank could eventually use the technology to help add teller services to its small New York lending office.

Ever since the first ATMs debuted four decades ago, ATM makers have tried to find ways to build new features. In the past few years, Bank of America Corp. and other major banks have replaced ATMS with envelope-free machines that scan checks and currency. Many ATMs will now print statements, dispense stamps, or play commercials while customers wait.

Now NCR is betting on videoconferencing. NCR developed the product at its offices in Georgia and Scotland in conjunction with its partner, uGenius Technology LLC, of Sandy, Utah.

When customers press a button, the machine automatically sends a message through a secure data link to a video call center, where the first available teller picks up the call. The teller can see the customer through a camera mounted on the front of the machine.

So far, NCR has found banks need an average of one teller to staff every two to three machines. NCR added other touches, such as coin dispensers to give banks the ability to give customers exact change when they cash a check and a signature pad to electronically sign checks and other documents

Jackie Hall, an NCR product director in Scotland, said early tests have shown that some customers who avoid traditional ATMs are more comfortable using the new machines, especially for complex transactions.

“This is really easy,’’ said Hall, who played the role of teller in the Boston demonstration. “There are no menus because the teller talks you through what you need to do.’’

NCR is still finalizing the pricing for the machines, but said it hopes to charge just a bit more than a high-end traditional ATM, which typically costs as much as $60,000.

Diebold Inc., a rival ATM maker, said it is exploring videoconferencing technology, but has not started marketing a device.

Bank executives do not expect the new ATMs to replace traditional machines en masse anytime soon, but analysts predict a growing number of banks will experiment with the technology.

“I think it’s intriguing,’’ said Bob Meara, a senior analyst with Celent, a financial research firm in Boston. “We could see dozens of banks rolling them out in the new few years.’’

Dollar Bank in Pittsburgh is among the first to experiment. It has ordered six machines for drive-through windows, a branch vestibule, and an office building.

Ben Benack, vice president of marketing, said the technology is attractive because it could personalize service. It will also let customers talk to tellers outside of regular banking hours. “We’re not closed anymore at 7 o’clock at night,’’ Benack said.

Coastal Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C., deployed an early version of the machines made by NCR’s partner, uGenius. The credit union said it has 63 machines in 15 branches, serviced by about 40 tellers at its headquarters building.

The machines have allowed the bank to cut the number of tellers 40 percent, while doubling hours of operation.

“We’re really pleased,’’ said Willard Ross, chief retail officer. “We are attracting even more customer checking accounts than we used to.’’

But digital tellers cannot do everything. The machines might reject bills that have been torn, just like other cash-scanning ATMs. They typically cannot dispense rolls of quarters. They cannot accept coins or open safe-deposit boxes. And they cannot fully replace the experience of dealing with people face-to-face.

“Where is the personal service?’’ one Coastal Federal customer lamented on Yelp, a website where customers post reviews. “They removed all of the people, and now you have [to talk] to somebody over a webcam.’’

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.

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