For Element Federal Credit Union ($26.6M, Charleston, WV), the solution to maintaining in-house, high-level service at a more manageable cost was to adopt free or low-cost consumer hardware and software wherever possible.
“Aside from the activities that tie into our core system, our staff uses the same apps and devices that our members use in their daily life,” says Linda Bodie, chief innovator and CEO of Element. “And our three-person contact center has just begun using iPads as a replacement for the traditional phone and PC setup, which allows them to also handle email, text, or really anything else they would need.”
For example, a Google Voice app is used to create virtual phone numbers so that members can text representatives, who then text back. The team also uses Skype and FaceTime for face-to-face discussions and the file exchange site Dropbox whenever specific documentation is needed.
“The trade-off is that in more public, third-party channels, like text or video chat, we don’t discuss personal or account information,” Bodie says. “If that type of information is required or is requested, we’ll just have the agents initiate a call with the member instead.”
Ditch IVRs For Intelligent Conversations
Although they are extremely useful from an institutional perspective, traditional interactive voice response systems (IVRs) are hardly effective relationship builders. In fact, callers view them as barricades and usually press zero for a live person or hang up rather than sit through long, vague scripts hoping to stumble across what they need.
New, conversation-driven iterations of this technology more closely resemble a virtual assistant, complete with self-learning algorithms, natural speech recognition, and a host of advanced capabilities such as updating a mailing address or shifting seamlessly between languages during conversation. Despite these advantages, cutting-edge technology frequently comes with a cutting-edge cost.
For credit unions on a budget, chat functionality, either online or on a mobile device, has also come a long way. When paired with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, these systems can be superior to a clunky IVR navigation system or even a live representative.
High-end chat systems that come with a preset knowledge base or the ability to learn new interactions by themselves can easily reach into the half a million dollar range, but there are far more cost-effective options that essentially allow you to build a system from scratch, Bodie says.
From January to July of last year, Element used a low-cost AI system called Chatbot4u to create a "smart chat" function on its website.
“Our members liked it, it was fun, and there was no creepy animated person or object talking to you,” Bodie says. “We also learned a lot about our members from the questions they asked, and the solution allowed us to be clever and creative in the way we talked to people.”
The service itself only cost about $200 a year and development of the initial knowledge base — which answered questions about locations, hours, options for depositing a check, and even fun inquires like, “What do you eat?” or “How old are you?” — took Bodie about one month to complete working by herself.
Despite these low costs, credit unions should still account for the ongoing effort of “teaching” a more basic system new conversation structures and accurate responses for questions it doesn’t understand.
“We found out you needed to ask short questions or use the right terminology to be most effective,” Bodie says. “But even an advanced AI system like Siri is not without its quirks and imperfections.”
Although time limitations drove Bodie to eventually swap out this service for a chat system operated by a live person, she believes the credit union may revisit an AI option in the future.
“If you can dedicate a person to working with that system, it can be very successful and you can actually save a lot of staff time in the long run,” she says. “Even if you only deploy it in-house as a reference database, a virtual assistant is so much different and better than a manual, user guide, or any other resource that makes employees search around for information.”
Pick Your High-Dollar Investments Wisely
Although there’s nothing wrong with paying for a solution off the shelf, small credit unions in particular need to be sure these options offer a viable return for the investment.
Despite its larger asset size, 1st United Services Credit Union ($835M, Pleasanton, CA) understands the importance of making a case for technology investments based on an expected return.
For example, in 2013, the credit union chose to use a third party to implement a “we’ll call you” button on its web and mobile site, which allowed members to specify their need and receive a call from a contact center agent as soon as one became available.
Efficiency was certainly a priority, yet the credit union also wanted to deploy this technology in ways that would generate new business and at least cover, if not exceed, the cost of the investment.
“On the widget, one of the options was for people who were interested in applying for a loan, and that was real critical for us because we wanted to see if there was a revenue source that we hadn’t tapped into yet,” said Mark Edelman, the credit union’s vice president of member contact, in a webinar with the company that created the technology.
In the first year of use, the “we’ll call you” button resulted in more than $10 million in new loans booked through that channel.