Instead Of Saying Hello to Robber, Teller Gets Himself Fired

“When the man came into the bank…dressed in a knit cap on one of the hottest days of the year, Nicholson [a bank teller] says he was immediately uneasy. The suspicious-looking man walked in and out of the bank, then got in the teller line, then stepped out of line.”

This excerpt comes from a Seattle Times story about a teller who was fired for foiling an attempted bank robbery.

Here’s what happened. A would-be robber handed a bag to Jim Nicholson, a two-year teller with KeyBank, and demanded it be filled with money. Nicholson “threw the bag to the floor, lunged toward the robber and demanded to see a weapon. Surprised, the would-be bank robber backed up and then bolted.”

Key Questions: Who demands to have someone shove a gun in their face? Doesn’t Nicholson have a mother/brother/wife/child? And what would have happened if the robber — already irritated by a non-compliant employee — had been forced to brandish his weapon?

Then Nicholson pursued the man for several blocks before knocking him to the ground, holding him until police arrived.

Reality Check: Brave, but foolish.

KeyBank fired Nicholson shortly after.

This situation illustrates a series of intertwined points about service, security and training.

First, when a suspicious person enters your branch, you don’t sit back and wait for them to rob you. In KeyBank’s case, Nicholson had ample cues and more than enough time to intercept the robber before things escalated. What was he waiting for? Instead, Nicholson should have stopped whatever he was doing, walked up to the person, shook his hand and said, “Hello! Welcome to KeyBank. Are you here to open an account, or is there anything else I can help you with today?” As The Financial Brand has previously noted (here, and again here), this completely throws a would-be robber off his M.O.: “Crap! I’ve been noticed. They’re on to me.”

“If a person is a legitimate customer, they will experience superior service,” says FBI Special Agent Larry Carr. “If their intention, however, is to rob the bank, they will experience paranoia, anxiety and a desire to escape.”

Robbers expect to encounter the same level of predictably-indifferent, emotionally-detached service from one financial institution to the next. In fact, they are counting on employees to do exactly what most have been trained to do — acquiesce. But when the situation presents developments that the robber didn’t anticipate, he/she simply doesn’t know how to respond. In fact, it confuses some robbers so much that employees have actually been able to get the potential robber to open an account.

This isn’t a perfect security system; there isn’t such a thing. But for all the security measures financial institutions put in place to mitigate the severity of robberies — cameras, bullet-resistant glass, man traps, dye packs, etc. — it’s completely baffling why more don’t teach this basic robbery prevention technique (PDF).

Have you ever heard of any other security measure that’s so effective it can thwart the same robber twice in one day at two separate banks? What other security measures can you think of that actually stops robberies before they take place?

Bottom Line: The KeyBank brand is suffering a public lynching. The story at The Seattle Times has received over 650 comments, and almost all of them rip into KeyBank harshly. It seems the vigilante in folks — our inner Rambo — wants to root for Nicholson and condemn KeyBank, even though KeyBank’s policy is as straightforward as it is common: they expect staff to comply with robbers’ demands inasmuch as it avoids violent confrontations. In this situation, confrontation wasn’t necessary; it was completely avoidable. For risking the lives of his co-workers, his customers, himself and innocent bystanders on the street, KeyBank was probably right to fire Nicholson. Having service mavericks — like Southwest Airlines does — is one thing, but having security mavericks is another. When it comes to people’s safety, you can’t have employees picking and choosing which rules they should follow.

Key Takeaway: Saying “hi” to suspicious people = security + service. This applies equally to shoplifters and department stores as it does armed gunmen and banks.

KeyBank should teach its tellers what could be done differently — besides just meekly complying with the robber after the robbery is initiated. Unfortunately, the message most KeyBank employees will likely get is “do what you’re told” when given instructions by KeyBank Corporate…or by a robber. If you don’t, you’re fired.

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