Keeping Bank Customers Connected in a Socially Distanced World

By Brendan Watkins

In the new era of social distancing that we find ourselves in, businesses of all types have had to adopt new strategies with previously undreamt of speed to keep their customers and employees safe, while also protecting revenue streams against a backdrop of a global economy that has suffered an unprecedented shock due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Curbside pickup has become standard operating procedure for many restaurants and liquor stores, grocery stores are ramping up home deliveries and workers the world over are becoming accustomed to virtual meetings featuring cameo appearances by German Shepherds, kittens and young children eager to ingratiate themselves with their families’ coworkers.

Of course, those companies that already had in place a business model that suits the current climate of avoiding human contact wherever possible had an advantage. Traipsing around the store to buy clothes was already an ordeal; why not have a professional stylist pick outfits for you and have them delivered to your doorstep where you can try them on in the comfort of your own bedroom?

For banks, their ace in hole during testing times will likely prove to be the trusty ATM. Despite being around for more than 50 years, the ATM plays a more important role for banks than ever before as these machines continue to evolve, get smarter and add more sophisticated functionality. In fact, some are becoming so advanced that they can perform many of the traditional roles that the traditional teller plays.

The rise of the ‘smart ATM’

It is hardly surprising, then, that banks and credit unions are looking at ATMs as vital parts of a branch reimagination. Some have already reversed course from investing in brick and mortar branches to smaller satellite and micro branches and new digital service and marketing technology. Now it is all about migrating and aligning a financial institution’s channels and resources to support its consumers’ busy schedules and personal preferences.

While they seek to close some branches or shrink others, financial institutions can still give customers the same—or higher—levels of services by deploying smart ATMs that offer video conferencing with live tellers, and easy ways to make credit card and loan payments. Many institutions are also exploring cardless ATM access, where cellphones offer convenient ways to communicate with ATMs, and some ATMs also sell stamps or take donations to charities.


One of the strongest consumer demands around the ATM is for fee-free ATM access. Savvy customers want low-cost access to their cash and, according to the Mercator 2019 ATM Benchmark Market Report, 77 percent of consumers will do anything they can to avoid paying ATM surcharges, while 65 percent say they actively seek out ATMs that are in surcharge-free networks. This hardly comes as a shock, given the average ATM surcharge increased this year for the 15th year in a row in 2019.

Surcharge-free ATM access creates a strategic advantage for banks—they understand that giving valued customers the ability to receive surcharge-free transactions outside their traditional footprint will extend their institution’s brand, increase customer convenience, satisfaction, retention and acquisition as well as block competitive threats.

Offering expanded surcharge-free ATM access gives their customers a significant benefit, both real and perceived. Those customers know that their institution has gone out of its way to offer the capability and, by initiating, a broad reaching surcharge-free program, community banks can market a “good news,” consumer-friendly message that cardholders immediately understand and appreciate. Surcharge-free ATM access has emerged as one of the most coveted cardholder perks that a financial institution can offer.

We don’t card

Another innovation that has increasingly become an expectation is card-free ATM access, which financial institutions offer accountholders the security and convenience of cash access using secure tokens in lieu of a card. Accountholders have access to cash instantly at convenient ATM access points by simply using a secure access code and PIN.

This offering not only provides financial institutions with added security—with definable withdrawal limits, number of transactions and the length of time an access code can be used –but gives banks an opportunity to increase loyalty among existing account-holders, deliver a premium service offering and attract new clients, while enabling them to enhance revenue potential by offering a significantly less expensive cash withdrawal option than alternative options such as wire transfers.

ATMs have never been more relevant

ATMs play a more important role for banks than ever before, and now is the time for them to protect their investment and optimize their ATM channels. Consumers are increasingly switching to ATMs for a growing list of everyday transaction needs—from cash withdrawals and check-image deposits to statement requests and peer-to-peer money transfers.

Once simply a reliable and trusted way to get cash, the ATM is evolving to meet consumers’ changing needs while also providing key benefits for financial institutions. When people access the ATM, they expect an intuitive, innovative experience that’s easy, secure and convenient. Thanks to the continued evolution of capabilities, features and functionality, the ATM remains a hub for financial services.

Brendan Watkins is VP for ATM product management in Card Services at Fiserv.