Teller-By-TV Replaces Real Thing At D.C. Banks

WASHINGTON - Angela Mitchell doesn't approve of the banking industry's latest move to automate service - a video screen connecting the customer with a live teller.

After her second experience using such a monitor at Crestar Financial's downtown Washington branch, she declared she "hated it."

"I think that automation is fine, but I'm concerned that we are losing the personal touch," said Mitchell, who works for a temporary-employment agency near the branch. "I want to use a bank that uses real people. I am not going to use this branch again."

Crestar customers at three branches in the Washington area now must do their banking with tellers by way of a monitor the size of a 9-inch television. Gene Kirby, Crestar's executive vice president for retail banking for the Washington region, said the video tellers are intended not to provide more security but to speed up service and reduce lines.

The video monitors don't exactly replace live tellers. The same number of tellers are located a short distance away elsewhere in the same branch. Kirby said the system's most important feature is that it allows a teller to serve two customers at once.

At six branches in Washington, Mellon Bank has introduced what it calls "video bankers." Customers who want investment information or need to discuss a mortgage can do so through a machine the size of a computer. The terminal is equipped with a small camera that, through videoconferencing technology, allows customers to talk to Mellon's Pittsburgh headquarters.

"In 10 years' time you will see a lot more bank services being delivered in an electronic way," said Fred Beard, president and chief executive of Mellon's national capital area.

Banks are increasingly realizing that despite consolidation in the industry, the number of branches is not declining. So banks need to find ways to operate branches more cost-effectively.

"It's very costly to do branch banking the way they are doing it now," said Chris Costanzo, editor of Bank Technology News, a trade magazine. "Banks are trying anything possible to bring their costs down."

Video tellers work like this: A customer steps up to a monitor, and a teller appears on the screen. The customer places the necessary paperwork in a metal drawer and pushes a button. The teller goes away and the monitor fades to news briefs, sports scores, movie reviews or bank product information.

On a nearby screen at another station, the teller's video image pops up. Both customers wait while their transactions are processed. Customers stand at eight video tellers rather than in one long line.

"I don't mind the impersonal nature. I just don't find it efficient," said David Sally, a corporate lawyer who recently used the video teller. "I actually walked out in frustration. I'd rather use an ATM."