Financial institutions are warming up to remote access service, in which customers use telephony and video technology to speak to a sales or service rep in another location, an option that solves problems such as reaching consumers in rural areas where branches are scarce or extending service to branches with little or no staff.

Pittsburgh-based Dollar Bank is using video to extend the availability of live customer service to times when most branches are closed, and to areas of busy branches, such as lobbies and drive-through lanes, that normally are set aside for ATMs and self-service.

“People are busy, and the weekends are usually set aside for shopping and errands. And banks are typically only open on Saturday morning,” says Joseph B. Smith, an executive vice president at Dollar Bank, which serves an area near Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Dollar plans to install NCR Aptra interactive tellers, which will give users at ATMs the option of speaking to a live staff person at a remote location.The bank announced the initiative Feb. 21 (see story).

In the case of the Pittsburgh bank, the tellers will be housed in an operations center in the city’s Strip District near downtown.

The bank plans to have three to five remote tellers on duty at a given time at first and will have them available for extended hours during the week and weekends. Beyond being trained to communicate via a Web camera, the remote tellers’ training will be similar to that of a teller in a branch.

“They’ll have the knowledge to answer some questions, and also make referrals,” Smith says.

The ATMs work by using video cameras and broadband to forge a two-way connection between the teller and the customer. “When you walk up to the machines, you push a button to talk to someone, and the ATM screen becomes a video screen,” Smith says.

The bank has yet to determine the types of transactions customers it will encourage customers to conduct using the new machines. But the bank and NCR said transactions could include split deposits or more-complex funds transfers that the teller would have to complete remotely. Or the customer could access the teller to answer general questions.

The video ATMs are opt-in on the consumer side. Brian Bailey, an NCR general manager, hopes increasing consumer comfort with video teleconferencing and person-to-person calls will make consumers more comfortable speaking with a teller while at an ATM.

“The proliferation of Skype and the acceptance of Skype is accelerating adoption of video,” he says, referring tom the online video-conferencing and calling service. “People are used to talking to friends and associates.”

The $6 billion-asset bank will first deploy the machines at a couple of branch locations in the next few weeks. It will then plot further expansion based on the results.

“We’ll be able to get a complete test of customer acceptance,” Bailey says.

In a bit of a departure from other early video-based customer-service initiatives that focused on allowing individuals in remote locations to speak with experts at a central location, Dollar is deploying the video ATMs at busy branches, placing them in the general ATM areas and drive-throughs.

The hope is that customers who choose ATMs at branches to avoid long teller lines will still have the option of speaking with a live rep if they have questions or need help executing a more complex transaction.

“We’re interested in finding out what this does for our flow at peak times,” Smith says.

Matching staff to volume is one of the challenges for the new ATMs. Bailey, who says the bank is still assessing staffing models, envisions the transactions generally being in the “two minute” range and says NCR anticipates a three-to-one machine-to-teller ratio.

Other providers of video service include Cisco, which is powering the Bank of Montreal telepresence initiative. The BMO deployment is more focused on assisted service with advisors such as financial planners than on teller access.

UGenius, NCR’s partner on the video ATM project, has done remote video deployments at Mid Hudson Valley Credit Union in New York and Coastal Federal Credit Union in North Carolina. In January, NCR bought a minority stake in uGenius Technology LLC, which developed the technology behind the Aptra ATMs (see story).

A spokesperson for NCR’s ATM rival, Diebold Inc., said, “although we are very familiar with the use of video from our experience in the security industry, at this time Diebold does not offer a two-way video [service] at the ATM. Currently, we are exploring the use of this technology across consumer channels to provide added value to financial institutions and their customers.”

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