What My Fight With a Chase Bank Employee Says About the Coming Robot Apocalypse

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Credit: Erin Schell

Someday, when I look back at 2017, I suspect one of the defining moments for me will be that time a human service worker aggressively tried to steer me, a human customer, away from interacting with his fellow human service worker in favor of a robot.

That moment happened to me a few weeks back at a Chase bank branch in downtown Manhattan, where I live. I went in to deposit a check, saw that both of Chase's fancy new in-branch ATMs were being used, then noticed that only one person was in line for the human tellers -- so I queued up.

And then it happened: the confrontation. A Chase bank employee approached me and interrupted my line-waiting (and iPhone news-reading). I guess he saw that I had a check in my hand because he said, "If you're making a deposit, you can use one of the new ATMs over there."

I looked at one of the new ATMs, which Chase is hyping as more user-friendly (they have giant touch screens) and versatile (e.g., they can dispense fives and tens, in addition to twenties) than its older ATMs, and they were both still in use. He wanted me to wait in a different line -- why, exactly?

"I'm good, thanks," I said, returning to my iPhone.

"I can stand with you by the ATM and walk you through it -- it's really easy," he said.

Oh God. He was obviously working off some sort of script.

"Right, yeah," I said, "I've used them before. I'd just prefer to deal with a teller today." Head back down, eyes on my iPhone.

"Can I ask why?" (Oh jeez.) It struck me that my interrogator looked and sounded a bit like a cut-rate Sean Spicer (which is impressive because Sean Spicer is already the cut-rate Sean Spicer). He paused, then added, "Karma?"

Wow, did he just go off-script? Would Chase use the word "karma" in a training manual? "Um, I guess? Sure -- karma." I wanted the conversation to be over.

"You know, if you use one of the ATMs, you reduce stress for him," he said, gesturing in the general direction of the male teller at the first window -- apparently unaware that a female teller was working a second window. (Did someone forget to lay her off?)

This was getting seriously annoying. "If I use a machine, I reduce stress for him?" I said incredulously. "By reducing the need for his continued employment at Chase, that's going to reduce his stress?"

"Chase has actually been adding tellers," Spicer Jr. said brightly.

Now I was getting pissed. "Wait a second, that can't be true," I said. I pointed out that Chase recently entirely shut down two nearby branches, and remodeled a third branch a few blocks away to cut back the number of teller windows to make room for the new ATMs. "There are literally a lot fewer human tellers being employed by Chase just in this neighborhood," I said.

He looked surprised to have his talking point challenged. "Well, they're adding bankers, but maybe in other areas," he said with a certain Spicey huffiness. (Sure, maybe bankers -- as in the human "concierge teams" that service its wealthy Chase Private Client customers -- but not retail tellers for average customers like me.)

I would have argued further but one of the tellers called me to her window. It turned out I slightly know her, in that she's occasionally handled my transactions over the years. A lovely older lady, she calls me "sweetie."

Afterward, on the sidewalk outside the bank, it took me all of 10 seconds to find news coverage of what Chase has been up to -- including a 2015 New York Post article: "Chase to Lay Off Nearly 5K Tellers by the End of 2016. ... The plan is part of a larger push to install more than 13,000 ATMs and rely on mobile banking -- cheaper alternatives for the lender."

I'll note here that I'm sort of the opposite of a Luddite. I love a great algorithm, a beautiful device, a clever robot, a time-saving hack, and I have a lifelong inclination toward tech nerdiness (I built my first computer from parts as a kid, and have spent a good chunk of my adulthood launching digital content properties). And I actually do often prefer to use ATMs and Chase's solid iPhone app.

I just don't like being bossed around in a retail setting, and I especially don't like being bullshitted.

Right now, Chase has a big sign outside its bank that reads, "WELCOME. WE'VE ENHANCED YOUR BANKING EXPERIENCE," over photos of customers using its new ATMs and its app. I suppose "WELCOME. WE'RE DITCHING TELLERS TO IMPROVE OUR MARGINS, SO GET USED TO IT" didn't fly?

Over the past year or so, we've all been bombarded with stories about the economy's coming robot apocalypse. In March, for instance, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that robots will take over 38% of U.S. jobs by the early 2030s.

And within a day of Amazon's announced purchase of Whole Foods, The Washington Post ran a story headlined "People Are Worried Amazon Will Replace Whole Foods Workers With Robots" -- because of that grocery store Amazon started testing in Seattle last year that uses Big Brother-esque tech rather than cashiers to tally purchases. "The surveillance-heavy building's sensors can detect someone leaving with, say, a carton of milk and bill their Amazon account," per the Post.

How the hell should Amazon spin the fact that Whole Foods has 90,000 employees whose jobs could be at risk if it makes its surveillance-shopping model work at scale?

It feels insensitive to call that a marketing/messaging challenge -- it's obviously so much more than that. But consumer-facing corporations need to think now about what their rush to automation means for their brands and their relationships with customers -- many who may become former customers because they lost their jobs to robots.

For my money, spinning it the way Chase is spinning it ... is not the way to spin it.

Speaking of Chase, I worry about how many more times that teller I'm fond of will get to say "Can I help you with anything else, sweetie?" to me.

The new Chase ATMs, by contrast, offer me a bland screen at the end that reads, "Are you finished? No/Yes" -- as if the machine were in a hurry to roll over and smoke a cigarette.

Neither of us seems terribly fulfilled.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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