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.
"Our belief is that just as Amazon helped drive fast and cheap shipping, this is something that's going to become a must-have for retailers," Keller said.
Companies adding video customer service this year say that it's important to present every option, meaning that workers will still answer 1-800 calls and type back in text-based support systems.
"Either they want the personal touch all the time or just sometimes or never," Visterra's DuHaime said of customers. "We want to be able to meet all those needs."
Analysts who study customer service interactions say video particularly serves two often incongruent but key spending groups: Graying baby boomers and millennials.
Systems like Mayday are a "life-changing facilitator" that give the older generation an alternative to asking their children for help, said Dan Miller, senior analyst at Opus Research. For the younger generation, social media has turned on-demand, personalized help into an expectation.
Three years ago, 45% of customers called when they needed help from game maker Activision Blizzard Inc. and 55% read help pages online. Calls have since dropped to 3% while support inquiries via Twitter and other online social networks have soared to 70%.
Tim Rondeau, senior director of customer care at Activision, said he expects including video chat in its "Call of Duty" mobile apps will be a more effective method of communication than 140-character posts.
Salesforce.com Inc., whose software runs the customer service databases for thousands of companies, will provide the video technology for Activision and 19 others this fall. Online brokerage E-Trade Financial Corp. wants to use video to help customers while Target is considering it for internal support apps.
American Express Co. brought video help to its iPad app in February, using technology from Cisco Systems Inc. that supports both one-way and two-way video. The credit card company took a handful of its highest-rated phone agents, including a former actor, and moved them to video. Each of them had some face-to-face sales experience, too.
Their stations received special lighting and backdrops to ensure crisp video. Perfected camera angles produce persistent eye contact. Like Amazon, American Express trained agents to inject their own personality into calls.
Customer service experts see service and support as just the start. Many hope that Amazon turns Mayday agents into shopping assistants who could, say, suggest which TV set is best to buy.
Dan Dietz, director of e-commerce for Mattress Firm Inc., said he's already seeing gains from doing just that. More than three months since making video service available to some customers, sales of accessories have boomed. Customers ask agents to prove that a mattress protector can fend off water. Or they want to see how two pillows compare in size.
"When it's held up to them live, the interaction is so much more real," Dietz said.
Vee24's Keller said video help has delivered another client a 10-fold increase in the number of visitors who make a purchase. The average amount spent also rose to $145 from $100.
"It's very unusual to see something that can have this level of impact on e-commerce performance," he said. "This is exactly why Amazon is making a huge investment in this area."
Smaller companies have options too. West Hollywood-based ShowKit, whose technology includes the ability for agents to draw on a user's screen, has brought video support to three small mobile apps. Emily Sipchen, a ShowKit co-founder, said the need is clear. When she tried calling Apple Inc. by phone for help using its store app, the agent said she retrieved her personal iPad to be able to see what Sipchen was asking about, according to a recording of the call.
"Even agents realize our technology would be really helpful," Sipchen said.
NCR Corp., which makes the powerful interactive teller machines used at Visterra, has made video terminals for 100 companies, including Hertz Corp. rental car and Bank of America locations. The kiosks allow such businesses to cost-effectively keep longer hours than usual and locate in low-traffic areas because they eliminate the need for someone to wait for a customer at a particular spot while another area might be overwhelmed.
Visterra expects to save $2 million over 10 years by using video ATMs and moving some tellers to other duties. Some customers shied away from the new machines and skirt to a traditional teller line. But coaxed into giving video a shot, Eric Scheirer of Riverside chatted with a video teller to make a loan payment for his motorcycle.
"It makes the ATM more personable and it's a lot easier to communicate with video," he said.