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At about 2:30 on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, Kweisi Mfume Jr., a sharp-looking young man in a suit and bright gold tie, approaches the SunTrust Bank at Connecticut and L Streets NW. He walks through the double doors into the small lobby and is confronted by something he’s never seen before. On his right, where bank tellers usually sit, are what look to be souped-up ATMs. Each one sports a big video screen, an eye-level camera, a small metal speaker box, a sliding tray, and a single pen firmly anchored to the counter with a heavy black cable.
Mfume, who’s come into the bank to make a withdrawal, takes it all in with a questioning look. Then he heads for something familiar, the little section of desks where one applies for loans and receives financial advice. “Are those really the tellers?” he asks one of the women seated there.
In fact, they are the tellers—sort of. Since 1997, the Farragut North SunTrust branch has featured a futuristic and often bewildering form of banking. Hidden somewhere behind the row of devices are flesh-and-blood tellers. But in a fiduciary version of the Wizard of Oz, these tellers interact with customers via a two-way camera system.
A few minutes after Mfume makes his inquiry, a young woman demonstrates how the system works. She stands in front of the monitor until a woman in a pink sweater appears on the screen. The picture quality is somewhere between a bad porno and a good security cam. Their transaction begins, the teller’s voice squawking out of the metal box. This scene is repeated many times, newer customers glancing hesitatingly at the row of machines, old hands walking straight up and waiting for tellers to appear via telescreen from their Dick Cheney– like undisclosed location.
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Most customers assume that the system was implemented as an extreme anti-crime measure. But despite its maximum-security aesthetic, the Orwellian layout was inspired not by paranoia but by the branch’s minimal size. According to SunTrust spokesperson Hugh Suhr, the bank installed the system to “make the best use of a location with a limited amount of space” and to “provide tellers a more effective way of serving more clients at a faster rate.” Suhr also notes that future plans for the bank are to convert it back to a more traditional layout, although he won’t reveal exactly why this was decided.
Bank of America, which has a branch nearby at 18th and K Streets NW, won’t comment on its competitor’s unique layout. But Bank of America Vice President for Consumer Segment Marketing Diane Wagner touts her own bank’s “friendly and inviting layout,” and the “warm welcome” provided by live managers stationed at the front of the store.
At SunTrust, in the meantime, customers continue to puzzle over the screens and the secret lives of their inhabitants. At least one expresses sympathy for the sequestered tellers. “I feel bad for them sitting behind that wall,” says Tony Byrd. “I’ve been coming here for a year and haven’t seen them smile.” But it’s impossible to know whether the tellers themselves are happy with their arrangement: SunTrust refuses to give them permission to discuss their experience, and all efforts to catch their eye—er, camera—to date have failed.
Patrons, however, have mixed reactions to the technology separating them from their tellers. Mfume, for one, doesn’t like it. “I was shocked when I saw it,” he says. “It lacks individuality.”
Byrd, who works equidistant between this branch and another at 17th and I Streets NW, uses this one for deposits only, preferring a face-to-face encounter when withdrawing cash or performing a more complicated transaction. When it comes to getting his money, he wants a real face that won’t disappear or have technical difficulties. “I like to count the money as the cashier is pulling it out of the drawer,” he explains. “Then I double-check once I receive it.”
Others, however, take a different view. Arthur Fuller, a longtime branch customer, hated the new system at first because of its impersonal nature. But over time, he says, he started developing a personal connection through the video screen. He likes that one teller can move Max Headroom– like between monitors and help more than one customer at a time. And he’s still managed to have a favorite teller, albeit one he’s only seen in 2-D, with whom he conducts transactions in Spanish. Standing outside the bank, with its futuristic kiosks and projected tellers still visible through the glass wall, Fuller adds, “It always boils down to the people.”CP