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Kristi Thornhill was surprised when she received the Louisiana Credit Union League’s (LCUL) 2022 Emerging Leader Award. But this honor was years in the making, taking into account her 13 years of experience at Neighbors Federal Credit Union, particularly her more than five years creating and managing the virtual teller center at the $1.2 billion asset credit union in Baton Rouge, La.
“I was given the challenge of creating a department from the ground up, not being afraid to explore unfamiliar territory,” Thornhill says. “Throughout challenges over the years, we were able to build this amazing team, keep our service level high, and keep it fun in the department.”
Now the teller center administrator, Thornhill was there from the beginning of the movement from ATMs to interactive teller machines (ITMs). The change started with the credit union’s renewed focus on member experience.
“Our leadership had a ‘branch of the future’ vision, which mixed technology with member service and ease of use,” she says. “They decided to change our model from a regular teller line and drive-thru to having ITMs at all locations and an open lobby where our members feel at home.”
The three-year project started after a 2016 flood that required Neighbors Federal to rebuild one of its branches. The credit union used it as an opportunity, implementing the new vision during the rebuilding process.
Today, Neighbors Federal has 55 ITMs across 10 locations with 45,000 transactions per month. The average wait time is 40 seconds and the average transaction time is 3.5 minutes.
That contrasts with the 18-minute average transaction time the credit union’s former chief operating officer observed while sitting near the old drive-thru and examining the member experience with traditional tellers. The ITMs also saved money by allowing the credit union to reduce the number of tellers from roughly 60 to 20.
“ITMs enabled us to be consistent, with all transactions in one location under one manager,” Thornhill says. “We can be more efficient. Our wait times have decreased, and we have the advantage of added security and safety.”
The ITMs also provide personalized member service, allowing staff to build relationships and cross-sell while conducting transactions. The switch to virtual tellers also came at an ideal time for Neighbors Federal.
“The response has been mostly positive, but it was during the coronavirus that the members really saw the advantage,” Thornhill says. “While some institutions were closed, we were available and ready to serve. We even had tellers working remotely through the pandemic, which we wouldn’t have been able to do in a traditional teller setting.”
Thornhill suggests credit unions looking to adopt ITMs have a clear vision, go all in, stick to the plan, and prepare members and employees.
She sticks to a similar game plan with her team at Neighbors Federal. A self-proclaimed practitioner of servant leadership, Thornhill believes in committing to the team and its needs.
“One of the things I find the most rewarding is bringing people into the credit union and watching them grow,” Thornhill says.
Her leadership philosophy: Embrace change, be flexible, be a leader and not just a manager, stay connected to your vision, and always keep members and employees in the forefront.
“My management team has always had faith in me and been my biggest cheerleader,” Thornhill says. “That’s what I love the most about the credit union movement, the dedication to people.”