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Customers supported via video

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

In a hurry on a sizzling July morning, Veronica Vallejos opted for the drive-thru ATM at Visterra Credit Union in Moreno Valley, Calif. When she pulled 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.

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.”

When she finished 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 in 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 adviser 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 adviser 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 percent of customers called when they needed help from game maker Activision Blizzard Inc. and 55 percent read help pages online. Calls have since dropped to 3 percent while support inquiries via Twitter and other online social networks have soared to 70 percent.

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.

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