ATMs in high-tech vs. personal-touch battle
(Jacksonville Bus. Journal; 06/05/98)
Automatic teller machines were once at the forefront of banking technology.
By punching in a few numbers you could make deposits and withdrawals any time
of day instead of waiting in line during banker's hours.
But today the standard ATM is becoming passe.
As banks search for ways to reduce expenses associated with a costly network
of branch offices filled with human tellers, the ATM is being called upon to
perform a bigger role.
"Depending on what the market does, we may see ATMs become more like
personal banking systems," said Jeff Hoffman, president of the J.R. Hoffman
Agency, a local public relations agency specializing in banks.
Epithets like "super-ATMs" and "banking kiosks" are being tossed around to
describe the new machines.
"There are ATMs now which are cashing checks and even preparing loan
documents," said Guy Nix, executive vice president at SunTrust Bank North
Florida. "This is real Buck Rogers stuff." SunTrust is looking into the newer
technologies to determine which ones to implement, Nix said.
One of the companies that has put a priority on technological alternatives
to traditional banking is First Union Corp.
"We have ATMs doing deposit to accounts, deposit with cash back and check
cashing, still on a limited basis," said Susan Symons, ATM product manager at
First Union headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.
"Also, customers can get bank statements, even last month's, from ATMs. The
idea is to keep people from having to run into the bank for everything."
The capabilities of the new ATMs are not limited to banking. For example,
some are dispensing movie tickets and postage stamps, Hoffman said, although
he was not aware of any machines doing those things yet in Jacksonville.
And the really high-tech machines are still to come. In the future, your ATM
card and personal code number could be replaced by a verification system known
"It's the verification of human features, such as a fingerprint, retina or
human voice," said Tiffini Bloniarz, senior media relations coordinator for
Diebold Inc. a Canton, Ohio-based company that is the country's largest maker
Diebold is working on technology that would allow bank customers to use ATMs
to get on the Internet to get access to financial information.
Bloniarz said she expects ATM Internet usage to start to take hold within
one to two years and biometrics within maybe three to five years.
While many bankers and techno-savvy customers may be excited about the new
machines, not everyone is doing flips over the super-ATMs.
"There is some backlash to a lot of banking technology," Hoffman said.
"People tend to like it if it is being used as a tool, but they generally don't
want to be forced into technology. Banks need to make technological advances
with a personal touch. A lot of people want to deal face to face, to have
established a good relationship with their banker."
Some of the smaller, community banks are even developing marketing
strategies around the backlash to what some consumers perceive as impersonal
"Our bank is based on personalized service," said Charlie Brown, data
processing manager at First Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. of Jacksonville. "We
have greeters at the door. We want all our clients to be greeted with eye
contact and a warm, friendly face. They may even be asked if they would like a
Coke or a cup of coffee."
But the smaller banks also realize they cannot ignore the industry's
technological impulses if they want to stay competitive.
"We have to stay up with technology because our clients demand it, but
legendary service is our goal," Brown said.
The repercussions of an ATM strategy that seems to ignore personal service
are not lost on the big banks either.
NationsBank Corp., for example, has placed "ambassadors" in various branches
in Dade and Broward counties, said Mike Jennings, senior vice president in
charge of ATM sales, service, channel strategies and development at the
company's Charlotte, N.C., headquarters.
"The ambassadors," he said, "are pretty much like greeters in the banks, who
may walk up to people waiting in line and say, 'May I have a couple of minutes
of your time to tell your about our ATM services?' In general, people are
interested when there is someone to explain it to them."
NationsBank has also placed trial machines, called "advanced function
machines," in Atlanta and Jacksonville to help overcome some people's fear of
putting money into a machine and not knowing where it is going.
"The advanced function machines take check deposits, read the microcoding on
the check and display an image of the check," Jennings said.
NationsBank has installed 18 advanced function machines in Jacksonville,
including 10 in Publix grocery stores.
Some banks are trying to combine technological advances with a personal
touch by exploring the possibilities of "remote teller systems," in which a
customer has on-screen interaction with a teller located elsewhere. That teller
may be working a number of ATM sites and helping several customers at once, but
the banks hope customers still feel as though they are getting personal
Bank executives say it just takes a while for some people to adjust to new
technology. Customer concerns about high-tech banking are nothing new.
"I remember when ATMs first came out in the late '60s," Nix said.
"Banks had people stationed outside the machines with a dummy card to show
you how it worked."
Timothy Allen Gilmore is a Business Journal correspondent.