MSUFCU has had a dedicated digital team since 2000. The group develops in-house projects, manages member feedback, and assesses organizational needs.
Throughout the past 20 years, the organization of the team has taken several forms.
When Ben Maxim started as a developer at Michigan State University Federal Credit Union ($6.2B, East Lansing, MI) in 2007, the cooperative was embarking on a first-of-its-kind digital project: It was developing its own iPhone app.
Apple introduced the iPhone in June of that year, and the credit union’s vice president of e-commerce, now-CEO April Clobes, pushed MSUFCU to build an app in-house.
“There were a number of pricey models on the market,” Maxim says. “But they didn’t allow for differentiation, nimbleness, or the ability to react to member feedback.”
Ben Maxim, AVP of Digital Strategy And Innovation, MSUFCU
The decision to build a custom iPhone app signaled a turning point in the credit union’s digital efforts. MSUFCU had established an e-commerce team in 2000, and it knew having the right technology was important, but so was the ability to quickly update and customize offerings to accommodate members’ changing preferences. To do that, the credit union needed more internal production. It needed to expand its digital team.
MSUFCU has a university-based field of membership. Students join while they’re in school, but graduation presents a challenge for the credit union. Alumni tend to move away from East Lansing and must decide whether to stay with MSUFCU.
Ashleigh Ashbrook, AVP eServices, MSUFCU
In the late 2000s, geography played a large role in that choice. If the credit union did not have branches where a member was moving, they typically looked for a financial institution that did. The internet and personal computers diminished the importance of geography — the iPhone even more so. After all, if members could take the internet anywhere, they could take their credit union with them, too.
By the time Maxim started at MSUFCU in 2007, e-commerce was a team of fewer than 10 employees, mostly developers, who worked on the website and the iPhone app.
Ami Iceman, AVP Research & Digital Experience, MSUFCU
“When there was just a handful of us, it was easy to talk to one another and get our work done quickly,” Maxim says. “But if you just have developers, they’re going to build and build. The rest of the organization might not be able to support that, and the product might not be as user-friendly or member-centric as it could be.”
So, the credit union brought in product managers to oversee development cycles and UX-experts to solicit member feedback and apply insights accordingly.
At the time, Clobes oversaw e-commerce as well as marketing. The two operated as their own teams however, the difference between them could be blurry. For example, maintaining the credit union’s website required technological know-how as well as creative content. When Clobes became CEO in 2015, she folded digital marketing and content creation into a single digital team.
CU QUICK FACTS
Michigan State University FCU
HQ: East Lansing, MI
DATA AS OF 03.31.21
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 28.2%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 9.7%
“There’s some give and take now,” Maxim says. “It’s easy to work through.”
In addition to these employees, MSUFCU’s digital team also included 75 to 80 live chat agents who manned the credit union’s website and mobile channels. Together, this digital team encompassed everything from development to the feedback loop.
Then, MSUFCU split the digital team in two.
A New Team Takes Shape
Maxim became MSUFCU’s assistant vice president of software development in July 2018, working alongside Ashleigh Ashbrook, MSUFCU’s assistant vice president of eServices. Ami Iceman joined the team in early 2019 as the credit union’s first assistant vice president of research and digital experience.
Compared to Maxim and Ashbrook, Iceman’s focus is less technical. She oversees member feedback — via surveys and other means — the UX team — which turns feedback into actionable developmental updates — and the content team — which posts on MSUFCU’s website and other digital properties.
Operationally, things worked well.
“We had those who came up with the strategy and those who executed on it,” Maxim says.
Then came Fran.
“If you just have developers, they’re going to build and build. The rest of the organization might not be able to support that, and the product might not be as user-friendly or member-centric as it could be.”—
In 2019, MSUFCU partnered with the startup Active AI to build an automated chatbot. What MSUFCU thought would be a three-month project stretched into 10, primarily because the credit union had no experience working with a fintech.
“Our processes didn’t allow us to do act quickly,” Maxim says. “We had to complete due diligence, validate the risk, and gather security documentation.”
The chatbot, dubbed Fran, has been live on the credit union’s digital channels for more than a year, but the project underscored a new role for the digital team — that as an arbiter of emerging technologies.
So, MSUFCU restructured the digital team again.
MSUFCU’s three-pronged leadership team for digital services allows the credit union to respond quickly to member demand.
Maxim became the assistant vice president of digital strategy and innovation in January 2020, joining Iceman and Ashbrook as the third spoke in the digital team’s leadership structure, which jointly reports to the CEO.
Whereas Ashbrook oversees chat, communication, and agile development, and Iceman runs UX and content creation, Maxim monitors the technological landscape, vets potential fintech partnerships, and guides partnerships through the pilot and test phases.
In late 2020, MSUFCU launched The Lab at MSUFCU, a testing ground for potential fintech partnerships in which members pilot fintech solutions the credit union is considering adopting. To date, 300 members have registered to participate; MSUFCU hopes to recruit more than 1,000 to extend its demographic reach.
Of note, MSUFCU is piloting Nickels, a student loan service app that tailors a payback solution to a borrower’s income and financial situation. If members provide positive feedback and the project’s ROI meets MSUFCU’s expectation, the credit union likely will white label Nickels and add it to the credit union’s other products and services.
“Fintech partnerships are a way for us to react to new technologies quickly without having to build everything ourselves,” Maxim says. “The lab ensures we can validate that these ideas actually resonate with our members.”
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