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Today’s Teller - Brains? Brawn? Or Both?

Strategically Speaking
Jul 10, 2013

Milton King Author: Milton King,

Any of you that have read my postings before know that I like to look at the history of a subject before exploring it.  When exploring the history of what we know as the teller (derived from the old English word meaning to count), I was surprised that this role dates all the way back to late 14th and early 15th century Italy.  To my further surprise, with adjustments for technology, the basic responsibilities were the same in 1413 as they are in 2013.

According to Wikipedia, the earliest instances of a bank, (in the generic sense for credit union readers) with a network of branches and the associated tellers, dates back to Renaissance Italy with the most famous of the banks being Medici Bank.  Medici Bank was established in 1397 and would ultimately have branches and tellers all over Europe.  Tellers have been the face of the banking industry for more than six centuries!

As I thought through the changes that have taken place in the world over the past 600 years, many of them have been exemplified by the roles and responsibilities of the bank teller.

  • The 14th century teller would have been busy making the clients comfortable with the concept of the bank.  They would provide assurance that whatever was handed to them would be safe.
  • The 17th century teller would have handled some of the precious art and artifacts created during that time.   He or she may have also been required to grab a sword as this was a turbulent time all over the world.
  • 200 years later, particularly in the U.S., the teller had really hit their stride as they were involved in every aspect of the bank.  They could open new accounts and put precious items in and out of the newly invented vault.  The 19th century was where the occupation known as bank-robber came into existence.  Legends like the James Gang made many tellers lives very exciting for 5-10 minutes!

The 20th and now 21st centuries have brought the teller full circle.  We spent much of the late 20th century pushing customers away from the teller just to find out that the human touch a teller offers is not easily replaced.  Now we need to merge the old-world charm of the 14th century with the pace and technology of the 21st century. 

teller solutions

So, what does the modern teller look like?

We have introduced automation at the teller-line that has clearly simplified the job.  Products like check scanners, printers and magnetic stripe readers take away much of the manual labor that use to be associated with the job.  At the same time, we introduced merchant deposits, payments, shared branching and other consumer-driven products to the teller-line thereby making the job more complicated.  Just for giggles, we gave the consumer as much information as the teller via home banking so the consumer frequently has a head start on the teller when they meet.  The teller of today has to wear many hats.

Today the more state-of-the-art systems used daily by tellers include a variety of fraud detection components in addition to the wealth of technology the teller already had at his/her fingertips. 

The introduction of this fraud technology begged the question, “what does the teller do when he/she comes across a bad guy identified by the system?”  Does your 110lb teller jump over the counter and slap the cuffs on???  Does she push the secret button that opens the trap door beneath him???  Most likely your answer is something less physical than these examples … I hope!

As I learned the history of tellers and compared it to the present, I realized that the basic elements of the job haven’t changed.  Technology has given the teller more information, but it has also given the consumer access to much of the same information.  The bad guys may not be on horseback carrying Colt 45s like the James Gang, but they are still there, they are just more difficult to identify.

An investment in your tellers is as strategic and critical as any other you will make.  Be smart about it.  Your tellers, like those at Medici Bank 600 years ago, are the face of your organization and need the best tools available. 

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