Bank Tellers and the History of Community Hospitality

This week, I was working on several teller openings I’ve had come up recently. I had a great candidate for some of these positions, one that fit some of the specific, community-oriented aspects of the job. But, as I was speaking with the candidate, I started to think about what, exactly, tellers are, and what makes certain people excel in those positions.

That’s kind of a weird thought, right? A “teller” is just a teller. They say ‘Hi’ at the bank, they deposit our money… you know, just the basics.

But I couldn’t shake my original thought. And the more I thought on it, the more I decided that they are a lot more to being a teller than I originally imagined.

Think about it: teller’s fill two pretty important roles. First, they serve as a practical arm of a financial institution: they handle transactions, respond to queries, and direct customers to where they need to go. Second, they are the face of that institution, and a member of its community.

The second thing is really important to me— and I realized that it’s why I started staffing credit unions and local community banks in the first place. While staffing a bank teller position is rewarding by itself (finding a great candidate for a position is always worthwhile), finding someone who is going to serve a community at a much more intimate level is that much more exciting.

So, I just wanted to spend some time talking about tellers and what they actually do, and why I work with them.

What is a Bank Teller?

In old English, to “teller” was to “ reckon, calculate, and count.” It wasn’t until the 15th century that the term “teller” became “a person who counts”.

Literally, a teller counts money and balances accounts. It wasn’t until later, though, that the second aspect of being a teller came into effect: that is, the aspect of hospitality. In some ways, this might boil down to “customer service”, and in national bank brands, this is more accurate. A good teller serves the customer so that they have a good experience and want to stay with the bank in question.

That’s all well and good for a big chain bank. But I wondered if that understanding of a teller changed when we think about a credit union, or something more local, and community-focused.

We don’t often think of banks or credit unions and community organizations. They just hold our money, right?

But think about this: there was a time when the local bank was the financial center of a community. Instead of having several banks across different towns and counties (or even states), a bank often served just a single region. Because of this, all the lending, borrowing, and savings went through that organization, maybe even in a single building.

This is what I call the “George Bailey” model. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, runs a Building and Loan in the town of Bedford Falls. It is a family institution, run by his father before him. Opposed to the Bailey Building and Loan is a large central bank, run by the greedy Mr. Potter, who wants to put the Building and Loan out of business so that everyone in town will have to go though his bank for their financial needs.

The politics of the movie aside, what really stood out for me was that the Building and Loan was the financial center for many people in the town. They didn’t they save their money there, but they borrowed money to buy their homes. They visited on a regular basis to deposit or withdraw money, or make payments on their loans.

Most importantly, they knew the Bailey's and their employees by name. And the Bailey's and their employees knew their customers by name. In one major scene, a rush on the building and loan threatens the solvency of the institution. George saves the day by offering his own money to pay out the withdrawals of his customers, and calling upon their shared sense of community to support each other.

It wasn’t the case that the bank was just a money house for them. The prosperity and challenges of the community were shared by the bank, the people working at the bank, and the customers of that bank. They were a community, in good times and bad.

Tellers as a Face For The Community

That is a fantastic scene. Maybe it it isn’t surprising that I specialize in staffing credit unions.

If a teller is someone who counts, then we can see the very literal connection to counting and the practical needs of the job. But more importantly, the teller is someone who “reckons”. There is a financial meaning for this term, but it also shares a meaning with “reckoning” as in “reckoning with the public”. If we see local banks and credit unions as financial centers for communities, then tellers are also the faces for that community, engaging their fellow community members.

I know—that sounds like a big burden to place on someone’s shoulders. But it’s true, and it’s actually pretty great.

Finances can be some of the most stressful and difficult things that people have to “reckon” with in their own lives. Even if they aren’t dealing with some sort of calamity, talking about money can bring up a lot of stress. So the teller is that comforting face, that expert hand that can answer questions, provide reassurance, and provide accurate information.

In a world where ATMs and online banking seems to further isolate us from the actual human aspect of banking, the fact that someone might actually, physically enter a bank means they probably have some questions or concerns. Or, they just want to know that there is a human head and heart behind that institution.

So when I staff credit unions, I feel like I’m staffing a critical part of the community. I feel like I’m looking to place someone in a position to help others. And that’s the most rewarding part of all.

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