If banks agreed on one branch-design principle, it likely would be this: branches of the future will not have teller windows.

Instead, they will be equipped with self-service machines that can handle transactions like cashing a check or doling out
$1 bills, freeing up branch staff formerly known as tellers to roam the floor to offer whatever service is needed, whether that’s opening an account, setting in motion a loan application or teaching customers how to pay a bill online or with a mobile device.

The ideas of assisted self-service experience is similar to airports with check-in kiosks and agents. Indeed, it is already part of some bank branches.

“Assisted self-service is the way it will end up fairly quickly,” says Kevin Travis, who leads the distribution practice at Novantas.

The broad idea is to get customers more comfortable with using self-service technology, while at the same time offering them an opportunity for face-to-face contact.

Fifth Third Bank, Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, Bank of America,  JPMorgan Chase and Umpqua have been among the growing list of banks experimenting with edgier branch layouts.

The fresher variation on a tired experience is a bid by banks to create something cost effective, digitally current, and — at least for now — staffed with informed employees who re-engage consumers in multiple ways.

Indeed, interior design changes with added self-service touches requires those working the branch to act as a guide and ease customers in a new world that differs wildly from yesteryear’s branches with lines and ropes.

All of this, of course, runs contrary to the common idea from a decade ago that “bricks and mortar” are becoming obsolete in a technological age. But there is a definite irony in that banks are trying to make their age-old strategy—branches—more profitable at a time when foot traffic is declining.

Case in point: In 2013, consumers visited the branch an average of 2.8 times per month, according to data from Synergistics Research Corp. That’s a drop from the 3.2 times they frequented in 2009, but it’s enough that branches are  not expected to disappear anytime soon. Despite the lower foot traffic, the branches are getting more attention from management and made more cost efficient to operate—hence the makeovers.


Telling Signs of Change

The role of traditional teller — counting coins and dollars — is changing for individuals who have strong bank product knowledge (including digital features) and who aren’t shy at approaching customers. The more encompassing role matters significantly to the bank and customer.

Indeed, Synergistics’ research also shows that the majority of consumers say they want a human being within the branch as a backup plan, and view tablet-equipped employees as a means to improve the overall experience.

The firm’s data is pointing to something branch managers have observed: More software may be running in the branch, but people make it all work.

“Without the staff I have here, the tech means nothing,” says PNC’s Dan Bishop, a retail branch manager for one of PNC’s first techier, teller-line-free branches.“ He describes the location’s employees as people “who have a stage presence and can walk someone through the banking experience and put it in such a way a customer understands it.”

That echoes what other banks have observed in their teller-line-less branches.

Wells Fargo, which made a splash about a year ago when it introduced a smaller store in the D.C. area with tablet-equipped employees, ATMs that dispense a variety of dollar amounts including $1 and $5 and free Wi-Fi,  identifies an outgoing personality as a crucial personal trait for those working at its newer concept branch.

Staffers need to “think on their feet and love to interact with the customer,” says Jahreem Purcell Edwards, a Wells Fargo branch manager in Washington D.C.

Similar to a retail store — and in fact called a store — its team members, wearing Wells Fargo-branded shirts, are expected to greet those entering the real estate. “It’s innovative and it’s fun,” says Edwards. “No two days are the same here. It keeps team members on their toes.”

There are commonalities, of course. Employees, for example, must explain the techier concept to newcomers because the store is unlike any other of Wells’ locations, and therefore, requires more of a guide and
storyteller to help someone get familiar with what can be accomplished, says Jahreem.

Consider PNC. The Pittsburgh bank debuted two modern branches last year—with discovery zones, iPads, and free Wi-Fi. It “looks different than a traditional branch,” says Bishop. “Our role is to walk them into the future.”

That starts with a greeting at the door and follows with whatever the customer wants to accomplish just as concierges would do for hotel guests.

In the branch’s case, the customer might be opening an account or trying to learn about online bill pay. Consumers ask most about the new ATM features and credit card programs, says Bishop.

The newer branch concepts are just one way banks are working to make their in-branch lines vanish.

Another emerging trend is how banks have slowly but surely been adding booking capabilities — much like retailers —on their websites as a way to help make sure the person coming into the branch will meet with the right expert without needing to wait in a lobby.

Wells Fargo and Bank of America are among the big banks offering the feature. UMB Bank, meanwhile, recently introduced “digital geniuses” who are in-branch digital experts that customers can book via the bank’s website to learn how to do something digitally in the branch at a scheduled time.

Westpac New Zealand, meanwhile, is testing Apple’s indoor wireless location sensors, iBeacons, as a techier way to identify who is coming into their physical environments.

The small initiative is reflective of a large trend: branches across the country are trying to become advisory and service centers where people can learn how to use an app to open accounts and potentially learn something new from someone who can assist on myriad requests — without a wait time for the consumer while also adding cost efficiencies for the bank running the branch.

The wrinkle to the branch experience is consistent with the trend of consumers increasingly researching what they want to buy before going to a physical location.

“Now when someone walks into the location, he is further down the path of making a decision,” says Gary Ambrosino, president of TimeTrade, which sells appointment-booking software to banks and other businesses.

“People know more what they want when they come in and see tech as a way to save time.... They are looking for service that helps them get their [business] done.”

The bottom line is that new renditions of the bank branch is an experiment to uncover new value. So far, though. there seems to be just one universal conclusion. “As far as I can see, the teller line is gone,” says Travis.