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 people in rural areas where branches are scarce or extending service to branches with little or no staff.

At Pittsburgh-based Dollar Bank, video is being used 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 are normally 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 Bank 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. 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 the tellers 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 types of transactions customers will be encouraged to conduct using the new machines have yet to be determined. But the bank and NCR said transactions could include split deposits or more complex transfers that the teller would have to complete remotely. Or a teller could be accessed to answer general questions.

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

"The proliferation of Skype and the acceptance of Skype is accelerating adoption of video," he says. "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 people in remote locations to speak with experts at a central location, Dollar is deploying the video ATMs at busy branches, placing the terminals in the general ATM areas and drive throughs. The hope is that people 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 staffing models are still being assessed, 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.

A spokesperson for NCR's ATM rival, Diebold, 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 solution 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."