Consider every channel, video, artificial intelligence and a brand driven by your culture.
Why go to a restaurant when you can easily order delivery? Why see a live show, drive a convertible or choose the scenic route?
Because experience makes a difference, rapid changes in what consumers expect mean that credit unions must reimagine their member relationships, retool their delivery channels and refine their brands to keep up with what members want, experts say.
Never a one-size-fits-all proposition, your member experience—and how you differentiate it—will be a critical priority to avoid becoming just another tree in the financial services forest.
Industry experts explain there are new and significant challenges today in how you meet with members, where you meet them, when you meet them and why you meet with them. Members want to transact business on their terms, whether it be in person, on the phone, or via email, SMS or chatbot.
The experts point to the transformational adoption of video as a preferred communication medium by big companies and innovative credit unions.
They also agree that a commitment to data management and artificial intelligence is a necessity, not a fad.
While brand identity and brand differentiation have always been important, your credit union’s image and the enthusiasm of your employees about your organization can become your biggest competitive advantage.
Each of these considerations has the potential to shape your member’s experience in ways that deliver member loyalty and trust.
Few folks remember a time before ATMs, but many of us can imagine a cash-free future where we tap a smartphone to buy goods, pay bills and even split the check for lunch. As credit unions across the country see in-person member transactions increasingly transition to mobile banking, phone apps, interactive teller machines, SMS messages and other digital channels, a logical question might be: What channels are being replaced? What system can be dropped to offset the cost of a new offering?
None of them, according to Steve Reider, president of CUES Supplier member Bancography, Birmingham, Alabama, who cites a 30% to 50% reduction in in-person transactions in the last five years. Despite this decrease, Reider contends that the industry must accommodate adding new delivery channels without any ability to retire their legacy counterpoints.
“We have never seen channel replacement in the long history of banking,” Reider says.
The challenge becomes how to fund and effectively deliver every channel. Channel proliferation and the resulting need for efficiency as a strategic priority should be on every credit union’s radar, he says. “I think it is imperative to find cost efficiencies that are going to allow you to meet the members across any channel of preference in a way that is still affordable to the institution.”
To achieve those efficiencies, Reider points to opportunities including the potential for headcount reduction by transitioning employees from specialists to universal agents that can perform a wider variety of tasks. Evolution of the branch channel may allow a physical design that can be supported with fewer employees, smaller footprints and corresponding lower operating expenses. Reider says the brick-and-mortar branch won’t go away but must evolve into a compact and more efficient iteration.
Efficiency is also a focus at Content Guru, a CUESolutions provider with U.S. headquarters in California and Virginia. Co-Founder and Deputy CEO Martin Taylor predicts that 2024 will catapult efficiency as a priority for credit unions as they seek ways to pay for an expanded menu of delivery channels.
The pandemic caused a significant shift in what members expect of their financial institutions, according to Taylor, who identifies four distinct phases of change in the post-pandemic consumer landscape. Such digital customer experiences as wide acceptance of video interaction and intelligent automation were just the first of several developments that have altered today’s consumer expectations.
“Next came an overhaul of the employee/agent experience and the Great Resignation,” says Taylor, resulting in both staffing shortages and training gaps. The rapid changes in both delivery channels and employee interaction have prompted growing consumer expectations for what he believes is the third phase of this evolution, the “total experience,” which he says combines multiple delivery channels serving the member individually or in combination.
Looking forward to 2024 and beyond, Taylor says the focus will be on efficiency and building strategies that reduce data entry and repetitive tasks, along with tech solutions to redirect the agent towards more interactive engagement and to member-facing interactions instead of clerical activities.
Science fiction saw this coming. In “Star Wars,” Princess Leia’s holographic plea to Obi-Wan for help is just one example of our collective aspiration for virtual face-to-face interaction. It should be no surprise that interactive video technology has become a reality. The forced isolation of the pandemic lockdown served as a tipping point, quickly accelerating the shift of video from novelty to daily routine.
One thing many experts agree on is the growing importance of video in commerce as a medium to convey information to consumers—and not just with interactive teller machines and live video conferencing. Airlines send videos with rebooking information for missed connections. A car dealer sends a video of the technician inspecting your vehicle on the lift. Get ready for video voicemails on your smartphone. Short streaming video to the member’s personal handheld device will be the future for everything from new member orientation to late payment notices. In all, the expectations of consumers are driving a shift to video delivery.
“That’s where the market is,” says Charlie Peterson, SVP/strategic initiatives at Allied Solutions, Carmel, Indiana, a CUES Supplier member. Consumers don’t want to wait on hold, and they don’t want to see a wall of text on their mobile device.
Peterson points to credit unions that are using video to change the perception of what good service is and contends that the open rate of messages sent by video is 50% to 60%—roughly double that of email. He says the organizations getting into this arena are creating a wide range of customized videos each month to do everything from responding to account inquiries, onboarding new members and offering training to doing financial literacy education and upselling and cross-selling products and services. The shift to video delivery is not unique to financial services, says Peterson; 85% of internet traffic is now video streaming.
Changing consumer habits about digital transformation is a priority echoed by CUES member Rich Klefsky, CCE, VP/member experience at $1.4 billion Island Federal Credit Union, Hauppauge, New York. While some members are eager for new tech offerings, “it can be difficult for legacy consumers to adapt,” he says.
Klefsky adds that in a quickly changing environment, “We must be versatile and responsive for both new and existing members, not only keeping up with changes but, more importantly, educating our membership to use new technologies.”
Want to build personal relationships, trust and rapport? Start with having your organization’s most engaging and charismatic member specialists welcome new members. Your best talent will no longer be limited to serving one member at a time, won’t take lunch breaks or have bad days, and will remain eager to help any time, day or night. Imagine the continuity of brand experience if most of your transactions could be handled by the same face and voice as the person you met when opening the account. A face you instantly recognize may soon pop up via a video image to your voice prompt or after tapping the credit union’s app on your device.
Artificial intelligence is not a fad and will not go out of fashion anytime soon. Credit unions are already starting to see the impact that AI will have on the future of both member-facing and operational functions. This influence will only grow. The same immediacy and personalization can be delivered to hundreds, even thousands of members simultaneously for transactional efficiency—whether they want to pay a bill, transfer funds or reimburse a friend for show tickets. But the game-changer will be individualized and personalized messages preloaded with member-specific touchpoints that convey data-driven marketing and product awareness scripts. Today’s consumer has already become accustomed to viewing ads that are triggered by their online activities.
“The member expectation is that you know my needs before I come to you,” says Chris Miller, senior director at CUESolutions provider Cornerstone Advisors, Scottsdale, Arizona. Artificial intelligence offers us new potential to predict those needs before the member realizes them.
“You can’t just say member experience is important and not release the automated tools that actually drive member experience,” Miller adds.
Experts agree that credit unions have recognized the importance of collecting and managing data but may not always be clear about how they should use the data. According to Peterson, “You have to start somewhere when new technology and new systems are brought to the table.”
Smaller institutions are using technology to achieve a comparable level of options and service delivery when competing with big banks. They don’t need a big on-site data warehouse or a phone room full of live agents if an AI-powered virtual agent can answer every call on the first ring 24/7. “The playing field is leveled by the cloud’s ability to offer a more equitable technology landscape,” Taylor says.
According to the experts included in this story, the potential for AI won’t be confined to member interaction and marketing products and services. Behind the scenes, artificial intelligence will coach the inexperienced staffer to ask the right questions. It will listen in the background, capturing responses and pre-filling forms. It will prompt agents to deliver scripts of needed notices, and it will document the receipt of required disclosures. AI will impact operations across all aspects of the credit union, and change is occurring fast.
Whether it’s your credit union’s personal service, clever marketing, nonprofit culture, quirky mascot, community involvement or common bond, consumers choose your brand based on unpredictable factors. The psychology of brand preference is complicated, and consumers routinely make choices for subconscious and illogical reasons. As proof, look at how few car shoppers choose to buy the vehicles with the lowest operating cost or the highest efficiency, opting instead to elevate priorities including status and sex appeal. What your brand says about you and what attracts consumers to your brand is both art and science.
“The smaller side of the industry [including most credit unions] is staying competitive because they deliver that personalized service proposition not only on the consumer side but even more so on the small-business segment,” Reider says.
But keeping that brand experience consistent across multiple channels is a challenge.
“This is the hardest thing,” Peterson says. “Your brand needs to be the same whether I walk into your branch, go to your digital branch, text you … whatever.”
Reider agrees. “One bit of advice I’d give to credit unions in this broadening, diverse channel environment is that you have to be able to deliver a consistent service experience across all channels and you have to be able to follow a service experience in any channel at any time from inception to resolution.” For example, when your member comes to you with an issue, your call center needs to seamlessly pick up the ball and be able to show continuity in a problem-resolution matter that might have been originally reported at the retail branch, via email or text message.
Experts also agree that workplace culture is arguably the most important component of your credit union’s brand. Klefsky says you can’t talk about member experience without discussing your employee experience as well.
“The culture within the organization can help drive the member experience, both positive and negative,” Klefsky says. That sentiment is echoed by Peterson, who says, “Your message is embodied by your team.”
Taylor explains that changes in the employee experience were made necessary by the same hiring and retention challenges that triggered the Great Resignation. He points to offering hybrid and remote work, reducing data entry and automating repetitive tasks as opportunities to improve employee satisfaction and redefine the role of the agent beyond filling out forms and regurgitating scripts.
Feedback from members is a focus for Island Federal CU. Klefsky says the organization surveys both members and nonmembers to understand what they prefer and help develop marketing strategies that will differentiate their credit union from the competition. The credit union is not only interested in measuring performance but also in discovering consumer preferences and priorities. “We do a brand survey to nonmembers to see how recognized our brand is and what consumers are looking for in a financial institution,” he says.
Of course, not all member feedback is positive, and as the saying goes, “A happy member tells a friend, but an unhappy member tells the world.” Taylor notes that “the most common way that people amplify their negative comments has shifted to social media, and the key is to spot that quickly and strive to take it private.
“Less tennis over Twitter,” he emphasizes. Instead, he suggests responding to the concerns in person or a nonpublic medium. “Someone who is a critic, with the right treatment, may become your most staunch supporter.” He adds, “Some people say [a complaint] is a gift, which may be a bit strong, but it can certainly be a constructive thing once you address their concerns.”
A failure of imagination may be the biggest challenge for credit unions trying to keep up with changing consumer expectations.
“I think it still goes up to the C-suite because they see the dollar amount attached to replacing old legacy digital banking systems but they don’t see the member experience boost,” Miller says.
Peterson points to the slow and deliberate process of decision-making that occurs at many institutions. “By the time we make a decision, it’s irrelevant. That’s how fast things are moving,” he says. While he doesn’t deny the importance of long-range planning, he says it’s “all about strategic adjustment” and the ability to adapt as circumstances change.
Others point to generational differences in consumer preferences between the decision-makers and the target market.
Reider says, “Transactions cost us money; sales make us money.” He recalls the days before widespread adoption of direct deposit when lines of members on payday meant processing transactions as quickly as possible.
“What the decline in transactions does is it gives you a broader window to spend with each member and ultimately reach that consultative trust environment that every financial institution strives for,” he notes.
One thing is certain: Changes in consumer expectations are being driven by innovative and imaginative technology in nearly all aspects of commerce. Consumers continue to embrace new delivery channels. They want to see your face and voice either live or digitally animated, not a wall of text. The credit union brand remains a differentiator. What was once science fiction increasingly becomes our daily reality. Credit unions that want to stand out in a crowded financial services field need to get started now on reimagining their member experience. cues icon
Longtime credit union advocate Keith Kasmire lives in Virginia.