FinTech: Innovative Cents

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I got my first taste of the “future” this morning and I have to say I’m kind of impressed. Yesterday, I had a paid focus group where I received $125 for talking about my insurance company for an hour. But when I got my compensation, something was different. Instead of the thin envelope with a paper check, I got a Bank of America debit card, along with a packet of fee schedules (i.e. no fee for debit purchases, no fees for BoA ATM withdrawals, but fees for non-BoA ATMs, etc.).

Normally, the idea of receiving a gift card would be a cause for concern, because one could easily get stuck with a JC Penney card or a card that can only be used at a poit-of-sale terminal. But the ability to withdraw free of charge from BoA ATMs is as good as cash. BoA ATMs are like dog poop, they are everywhere so I knew there would be no issues with getting that money. So this morning, on my way to work, I stopped by my nearest branch (which by the way, I had several to choose from within a 1/2 mile radius) to collect my coins when I realized that this particular ATM only delivers in $20 denominations. Although most ATMs are like that, there are a few that I’ve used in different towns that have had $10 or even $5 denominations. Since the banking center was closed, I thought that it was an opportunity for me to give the remote teller a whirl.

I went through the log in process and this smiling, bubbly blonde lady rocking the stereotypical “call center headset” came on to greet me. She explained that, while $20s are the only available denominations at a self-serve ATM, the teller assisted ATMs can dispense any denomination you wish, even singles. Adding that since the actual teller line would not be open until 9 am, I made the right choice in using their Teller Assist feature, which is available from 7 am until 10 pm.

Keeping in mind that the level of customer service I received is a reflection of her as an employee who takes pride in her work, I have to admit that this technology, while still in its infancy, is a game changer. There’s a camera at eye level which allows her to see me. While the machine’s microphone allows her to hear me, there’s also a handset to help hearing impaired people or anyone who might want a bit of privacy in an overcrowded ATM lobby. The process was very smooth. I used the screen like I normally would, except, in the top left corner, she was there walking me through the entire process and providing me with a service that the regular ATM couldn’t: $5 bills.

Say what you will about BoA’s predatory lending practices or absurd fees, we have to admit that this is great news for customers, which will translate into more money for them. While I don’t see myself ever using an ATM at 10 pm in downtown Boston, they have managed to extend their customer services hours by 4 hours 5 of their 6 operating days. Customers will also likely get better service and treatment from these remote tellers, because, unlike banking centers where the branch managers are busy trying to meet their monthly quotas of getting people no open new accounts, they are probably more actively monitored by their call center managers.

It does spell bad news for the average big bank teller. However, it is not uncommon for lower skilled employees to be casualties of innovation. The only people who tend to benefit from technology breakthroughs are consumers who get access to improved services and big businesses who get to fatten their pockets. This also reinforces my belief that no job is safe. But we can’t stop innovation, so build multiple streams of income and strive for financial independence.

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