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Credit union adds remote teller service<br> New device provides audio-visual link for financial transactions

Imagine going into a bank branch, walking up to an automatic teller machine and talking to it. Now imagine the machine talking back, asking you about your kids as it spits out your money.

Customers of Meridia Community Credit Union's Village of Hamburg branch soon will experience just that -- along with significantly longer hours.

The small member-owned financial institution is becoming the first bank or credit union in the area to introduce a Personal Automated Teller, a machine offering live teller service in a branch that no longer has any traditional teller staff. It's part of a plan to not only expand service, but ultimately add branches at a lower cost.

Described as a cross between a human teller and an ATM, a PAT is a "fully functional remote unit" that lets customers conduct a full range of batyic teller transactions, beyond those available at ATMs.

But instead of just interacting with a computer that displays messages on the screen, the customer talks via video conferencing with a live teller in another location -- in this case, the credit union's main office at 4500 Southwestern Blvd.

"It's not just a picture. It's video interaction," said Michael Hoffman, president and CEO. "The only thing that's changed is we've taken that traditional teller line and gone to this."

The service and two machines will be available in the credit union's office at 277 Buffalo St. in the Village of Hamburg, where they have replaced the normal teller line. The staff remaining at the 25-year-old branch will help customers with mortgages, other loans and new accounts.

To use the PAT machine, a customer hits the start button, routing the call to the next available teller. Once connected, the system will stream a live video image and audio link to the PAT, and the customer can converse with the teller and complete transactions.

Consumers can withdraw money or cash checks to the penny, deposit both cash and checks, check balances, or transfer money between their accounts, just as they can with regular ATMs. But they can also get a cashier's check or make loan payments, as well as do almost anything else they could if they were conversing face-to-face at a regular teller window.

"It's 90 [percent] to 95 percent of any transaction you could normally do with a teller," Hoffman said. "If you need a cashier's check made out to someone in particular, we can do that for you."

The machine will have an area to scan a driver's license to verify a customer's identity and signature, a slot to accept not only envelopes but currency and checks, and a check, cash and coin dispenser. It can also detect counterfeits.

"PAT looks like an ATM, but with the added features of a video monitor and audio hookup, photo ID scanner, and cash and coin dispersal," Hoffman said. "Credit union members can complete any transaction with PAT they would in a traditional branch teller line."

The PAT machine is "a very new thing" and "kind of a first-generation device, too," said Bob Meara, senior banking analyst at research firm Celent LLC in Boston. That, he said, is part of the reason why it hasn't been deployed yet by many other banks and credit unions, which "are very interested in the technology, but feel it's not quite ready for prime time."

But that could change, since pressure is building on banks to find ways to be more efficient while still serving customers.

"Banks and credit unions alike are having to really scrutinize their branch channel and make it as efficient as possible," Meara said. "Anything that can help make branches more efficient and effective is going to get a close look."

Almost 100 PAT machines are in operation in North America, but Meridia is only the second financial institution in New York State to install one. The other, the Mid-Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union in Kingston, has a dozen, Hoffman said.

Besides Meridia and Mid-Hudson, eight other credit unions nationwide are using them, with one large one, Coastal Federal Credit Union in North Carolina, installing as many as 60, replacing all of its teller lines at 15 branches and reducing teller staff by 40 percent.

"I think they are a leader by offering this technology, but I'm not surprised," said Christine Barry, research director for Boston-based AITE Group. "Credit unions have seen a lot of new opportunities as a result of the financial crisis and the recession, and a lot of them are leveraging technology to take advantage of that opportunity.

"They're also very focused on the overall member experience, so this technology will enable them to provide a greater convenience to their members."

But Meridia isn't just using new technology. Currently, both of its branches are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday. The main office also is open from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Now, however, teller service through PAT, as well as the drive-through, will be available at the Buffalo Street office from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sunday -- doubling the branch's hours. And the entire lobby of the Buffalo Street office, which also has a traditional ATM, will be available with card access 24 hours a day.

In addition to the regular headquarters branch staff -- including three lobby tellers -- during regular hours two tellers will be on duty at the headquarters during the expanded hours just for PAT service. The PAT tellers also will operate the Buffalo Street drive-through service when the lobby is closed.

So despite the ultimate goal to operate more efficiently and save money, the move initially resulted in more staff, not less.

Meridia, with $40 million in assets, has 17 employees serving slightly more than 5,000 members.

"If we were just to stay open normal lobby hours, it would have saved us money," Hoffman said. "But with the increased hours, we knew we'd have an increased expense."

But in the next three years, the credit union plans to open one to two more branches, all in the Southtowns. By installing PAT machines instead of teller lines, it can add fewer staff down the road while still providing teller service.

"It's a growth strategy for us," he said. "Without efficiencies, we wouldn't be able to grow."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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