Is that ATM talking to me?

Actually, yes. There’s a real person behind teller machines at two Omaha-area bank branches. Instead of an “automated” teller machine, these are “interactive” teller machines — staffed by live people at a branch across town.

“It’s still a face-to-face interaction with the customer,” said Rafael Rodriguez, one of three American National Bank associates whose face and voice pop up on the new machines — which look like regular ATMs — in the drive-thru lanes at two of its branches.

The machines are remotely staffed by tellers at the bank’s Bennett Avenue branch near Mall of the Bluffs in Council Bluffs. From there, the tellers assist customers using a video interface to help with things like funds transfers and questions about loan applications.

American National is the lone Nebraska bank to adopt the technology so far, according to NCR Corp., which makes the machines.

“It’s just a different pace so (customers) can swing by really quickly and get on with their business.” Rodriguez said.

Customers who need to cash a check over the lunch hour, or even during breakfast or dinner, can pop in to American National’s drive-thru lanes at 80th and Dodge Streets in Omaha or at 26th Street and Broadway in Council Bluffs, where the new machines are located.

Staffers are manning the interactive teller units from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. (Regular drive-thru lanes are open during normal bank hours, too.) Bank officials say the interactive machines are a quicker option than stopping in a branch or using the old-fashioned pneumatic tubes of a typical drive-thru teller, and are more versatile than using an ATM.

The interactive machines are another sign of customers’ march away from doing business in person at a bank branch, industry watchers say.

Since 2011, average monthly teller transactions at community banks and credit unions throughout the U.S. have declined 28 percent to 6,400 at each branch, according to research from Atlanta-based banking advisory firm Financial Management Services Inc.

Costs per transaction over that same period increased 32 percent to $1.12, meanwhile. NCR spokesman Jeff Dudash said other industry research pegs in-branch transaction costs as high as $4 per transaction, which compares with the roughly $2 per transaction cost of using its interactive teller units.

In other words, it can cost a bank less to staff and operate the interactive teller machines than to keep the lights on at a fully staffed branch.

Eventually, banks could have entire drive-thru lanes or even branches staffed by people working remotely. Customers would pull up or walk in to interact with a banker using an interactive teller machine.

American National doesn’t have plans for that right now.

Other banks continue the battle to maintain and increase customer satisfaction with new technology, even if it means shaking up more traditional ways of interacting.

Wells Fargo in late May, for example, unveiled an advanced ATM to complement its recently relocated branch at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield.

Similar to the ITMs at American National, the Wells Fargo advanced ATMs let customers complete transactions like withdrawing cash in different denominations and transferring balances without waiting in a teller line. If they’ve got questions, they can hail a branch associate from the machine.

Fears that the human bank teller will go the way of the dinosaur have been around since ATMs made their debut in the late 1960s. And while branches are seeing lower traffic than before, bankers in Nebraska and across the U.S. have said many customers still depend on branches for activities like notary services, opening new accounts and turning in change.

In other words, don’t expect the next generation of banking technology to usurp the human touch or the brick-and-mortar branch anytime soon. Technology is not necessarily competing with humans as much as it is serving as a counterpart, local bankers say.

That has been an important distinction at Clarinda, Iowa-based PCSB Bank, which became the first financial institution in Iowa to install NCR’s interactive teller units in late 2013.

Megan Cabbage, manager of branch operations at PCSB, said shift workers at manufacturing plants in the communities served by the bank have appreciated being able to conduct business once their overnight shifts are finished, for example.

“That’s a draw for us that they can come and see us and talk to us when their shift is over at 7 a.m.,” Cabbage said.

The machines also have given the bank the opportunity to be open on Saturdays in communities where the bank doesn’t have enough staff to conduct business on the weekend.

PCSB now has 13 of the machines in operation, including two it just installed this summer when it opened a new branch in Mount Ayr, Iowa, about 2½ hours southeast of Omaha. Cabbage said about 60 percent of the bank’s machine-based transactions are handled by the new ITMs, up from about 50 percent a year ago.

Back in the Omaha metro area, American National Chief Banking Officer Mark Barker emphasizes ITMs’ convenience to customers and sees them as a potential growth strategy that could be far more cost-effective than building new branches.

For an extra hour after the bank’s drive-thru lanes close and a half-hour before they open, customers can conduct most routine banking transactions — including retrieving multiple denominations of bills and coins — at the interactive teller machines.

That effectively extends the bank’s hours at those locations to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and to 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

“It’s a great customer service vehicle,” Barker said. American National is the fifth-largest bank in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, with about $1.42 billion in local deposits.

To be sure, bank branches remain critical for activities like mortgage lending and increasingly popular and lucrative wealth management services. And Barker expects that they’ll continue to be important for routine transactions for some customers — but the value of remotely staffed ITMs hints that machines could be a staple in the future of more mundane banking transactions.

The NCR machines cost about $140,000 to purchase and install. A new, 3,000-square-foot branch in a new market would cost between $2.5 million and $3 million, by comparison, Barker said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1534, cole.epley@owh.com

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