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Published Jul. 6, 2006

Jimmy Williams, chairman of SunTrust Banks Inc., may pull down nearly $2-million a year, but it's people like Kim Persaud and Diana Sligh who really make the bank run.

Persaud and Sligh are tellers in a branch of the Atlanta-based banking company on N Dale Mabry Highway.

Their job was supposed to disappear a decade ago. As far back as the early '70s, bankers have predicted _ or, maybe, hoped _ for the end of tellers as customers opted for cheaper high-tech alternatives like automated teller machines, automated telephone systems and personal computers.

"I've heard ever since I came into banking that one day there will be no tellers," Sligh says.

But a day spent with the tellers shows that much of banking still boils down to people doing simple transactions with people. SunTrust tellers, on average, complete 200 transactions a day.

All day at the branch, customers line up at the drive-up window to cash checks and withdraw money, even when they could complete their transactions more quickly at the ATM.

Indeed, it is the drive-up window, not the lobby entrance, that is the real front door of the branch. For every customer who enters the branch, 10, it seems, drive up to the window.

Why do they wait in line? Maybe it's the "Hey-how-you-doing?" service. Sligh even says "Bless you" when, over the intercom system that ties the tellers to the drive-up lanes, she hears a customer sneeze.

Chatty and curious, Sligh reminds you of your best friend's mom when you were growing up. She seems to know two out of three customers by name. For some, she even knows a little personal history.

"People will talk to you in this job," she says. "They'll tell you anything."

Of course, knowing people as faces in the windows of minivans isn't the same as sitting down with them for a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer.

"I startled one customer in the supermarket when I said hello to her," Sligh says. "I could tell she didn't know who I was. Later she came up to me in the checkout and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't recognize you away from the bank.'


Besides greeting customers when they arrive and knowing their names, the tellers at SunTrust, like their counterparts at other banks, dole out lollipops _ for this week, they'll switch to candy canes _ and dog biscuits.

The tellers are evaluated on the quality and courtesy of their service. They're also graded on the accuracy and number of their transactions, their adherence to security rules and their ability to promote bank products.

SunTrust won't disclose its salary range for tellers. But a survey by the Bank Administration Institute in Chicago found that, on average, big banks start inexperienced tellers at about $14,000 a year and pay experienced tellers as much as $23,000 a year.

Persaud fares well when evaluated. Quiet and formal, she is the one the others turn to when they have a question about bank rules and procedures.

On her lapel she wears a small gold pin of the numeral "100." She received it for scoring a perfect 100 points when a SunTrust mystery shopper transacted business with her. It's her 25th such pin.

Like many service companies and retailers, the bank sends anonymous shoppers into its branches to evaluate its staff.

Sligh actually started her career by doing that job for Flagship Bank, one of the local banks SunTrust acquired. Later, in the mid-'80s, she became a teller.

Back then, it was enough to know your customers, treat them well and keep careful count of the checks and cash that came in and out of your drawer. But today, tellers also are expected to watch for customers who might want to buy some other product from the bank.

Banks want you to buy from them a whole suite of financial products ranging from loans to investments and insurance. They're no longer content to simply provide, say, a mortgage and checking and savings accounts.

This zeal for investment sales has landed the three biggest banks doing business in Florida in nettlesome spots.

Barnett, First Union and NationsBank have each either been spanked by regulators or been sued by customers. By pitching their investments too aggressively, they ended up selling them to people who say they didn't understand what they were buying.

Though SunTrust offers a full menu of investment products, it doesn't hawk them quite as aggressively as its rivals.

Spend a day in the branch, and you'll seldom, if ever, hear one of the tellers ask customers if they would be interested in meeting with an investment sales person. And the handmade chart on the wall tracking their success at making referrals hasn't been updated in a month and a half.

No, the tellers' biggest worry isn't whether their customers have bought shares in one of the bank's mutual funds. Rather, it's about preventing fraud.

Banks in general have seen a rise in check fraud. A 1994 survey by the American Bankers Association found that banks had lost $815-million to schemes such as forging signatures on stolen checks, or creating counterfeit checks. That was a 43 percent increase over the prior survey, conducted two years earlier.

In the SunTrust branch, a photocopy taped to the drive-up window testifies to the tellers' concern about swindles. It shows two members of a gang that stung several local banks by cashing big, bogus checks.

The grainy image was captured by a lobby video camera and has been blurred by transmission over a fax machine. So its value for identifying crooks seems limited. But it serves as a reminder.

A computer workstation installed a month ago in the branch has helped assuage the tellers' worry. It allows them to check in seconds the signatures on checks drawn on SunTrust accounts in Florida.

In the past, when tellers suspected forgeries, they had to call the branch where that account was opened and ask a staffer there to fax them a copy of the signature card.

No longer. The screen of the new workstation displays a reproduction of the account-holder's signature as soon as a teller keys in the account number on the check.

And the signature checker isn't the only high-tech device that has been installed behind the counter.

The tellers also have a machine, called a Cummins JetScan, that counts stacks of bills. The money need not be sorted by denomination. The teller simply drops a mixed stack of bills into a tray atop the machine. Then, in few seconds, it counts and spits them out below. It even recognizes counterfeits.

A teller does have to tend the machine because, like a photocopier, it sometimes jams. Says Persaud, "It doesn't like tens."

Likewise, tellers at the drive-up window don't spend as much time fiddling with cash as they once did. A year-old machine manufactured by Diebold InterBold is wired into their workstations. It spits out the amount of cash they need at the push of a key.

Of course, like most technological tools, this one is no panacea.

The tellers still have to count out coins themselves. And the machine doesn't dispense $10 or $100 bills. So if a customer wants a mix of bills that includes those, the teller turns to the drawer.

The machine, however, does often spare the tellers one of the hidden headaches of their job: dealing with brand-new bills.

"They stick together, so we don't like to work with them," Sligh says. "You can give people an extra one without realizing."

That's called human error. Which bankers don't like. It's one of the reasons they want to replace tellers with machines.

Trouble is, they've yet to find a machine that can convincingly say, "God bless you."