In a hurry on a sizzling July morning, Veronica Vallejos opted for the drive-through ATM at Visterra Credit Union in Moreno Valley. After pulling under a carport, she leaned out her window and found to her surprise, a screen lit up with Regina's smiling face.
"How can I help you today?" Regina, the teller, asked before she processed Vallejos' car loan payments and shared some laughs with her.
At a time when automated voices such as Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana respond to questions, customers often think Regina is just another video robot.
But Regina is a real teller, communicating with her customers from a cubicle hidden in an office a few feet away. From there, Regina will eventually be able to chat with customers at any of Visterra's five branches throughout the Inland Empire.
ATMs, tablet computers, smartphones and store kiosks have become a battleground for companies trying to dazzle customers with instant access to friendly help.
Companies such as American Express, Hertz, Activision Blizzard, E-Trade, Bank of America and Target are rolling out one-click access to help via video chat. They're relying on an old adage about customer service: Despite technological advances, a real person, whose smiling face a customer can see, always wins.
"Usually, there's not a lot of opportunity for a teller to have much relationship-building with that customer -- it's really money in and money out," said Janet DuHaime, chief operating officer for Visterra. "If the interactive teller machine's doing that, the teller has an opportunity to talk to the customer to build and nourish a relationship."
After finishing with Regina, Vallejos expressed excitement about regular video chats. She said she felt safer at the ATM knowing someone could see her.
"It's just nice to have that face-to-face, not just hear their voice," she said.
The customer-service-by-live-video trend began last September when Amazon.com Inc. introduced the Mayday feature to its Kindle tablet. About 10 seconds after tapping the "Mayday" button on a Kindle screen, a video feed loads in a corner. It shows a tech support advisor who can't see the user but can see what's on the screen and hear what the user says.
"They can choose to have the tech advisor talk them through how to do something, show them how to do it themselves or do it for them," said Amazon spokeswoman Kara Berman.
Promoted in a widespread advertising campaign, Mayday brought an idea long percolating in marketers' minds to the forefront.
"It's really captured people's imaginations," said Jim Keller, chief executive of Vee24, which builds software to integrate video chat help into apps, websites and kiosks. (continued...)
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