Credit unions (CUs) and other financial institutions (FIs) across the country have made leaps and bounds in their efforts to digitize services in recent years to meet an already-growing consumer demand.
The pandemic has fast-tracked that digitization, however, as concerns and restrictions have led members to reduce their branch visits and turn to contactless features to carry out their banking activities online.
New Jersey-based Affinity Federal Credit Union began upgrading its systems about five years ago as it looked toward the digital future. The CU’s goal was to transition to an automated service model, with virtual channels for mobile and online banking as well as an upgraded contact center, according to Jacqui Kearns, chief brand officer for Affinity.
“We always had basic services like that, so it’s been a journey, but it has been accelerated by COVID-19 to keep people safe and allow them to virtually have more access to us,” Kearns said in an interview with PYMNTS. “We look at everything through the lens of our mission: to support the financial lives of our members and the communities we serve.”
Embarking On A Digital Transformation
The CU, which has 20 branch locations within the tri-state area that includes New York and Connecticut, has upgraded its automated services to incorporate integrated cloud-based technologies and environments that involve artificial intelligence (AI). Among the digital upgrades Affinity recently implemented is Wes, a virtual assistant that helps answer questions on its website. The name is a nod to the CU’s founding 85 years ago by the Western Electric Company as the W. E. Headquarters Federal Credit Union, created to serve its employees.
The new features include a biometric voice authentication system intended to reduce the time spent waiting on hold and fortify security. The CU has also introduced an interactive voice response system to allow callers more self-service options — including transfer to an agent, if necessary — along with the automated ability to schedule an in-branch appointment.
“A really big focus of the upgrades was to get rid of all that manual paperwork and go digital,” Kearns said.
The reasons to go digital, she said, were not only to make processes easier for members and staff but also to stay competitive with other FIs.
“What happens over time is you start to look around and see big banks like Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America … using data more intuitively, and we sit right in that footprint,” Kearns said. “[We said,] ‘Why can’t we have that, too?’ And that’s really how we embarked on our digital transformation.”
Affinity had help with its transformation, too. CUs are known to work collaboratively, Kearns said, and Affinity received assistance from credit union service organizations and other CUs that had completed their digital shifts.
“A few very high-powered technology partners were already there, digitally speaking, so they helped influence our decision,” she said. “We also worked with big providers and service companies that wanted to get into a market that would traditionally be banks, and they said, ‘Wow, how could we diversify and support your members the same way?’”
Any upgrade to infrastructure comes at a cost, according to Kearns, but the reward of embedding automated features is a more secure and seamless system. The contact center serves as an improvement from both a customer relationship management perspective and a fraud-fighting one, for example.
“The technologies are more intuitive, with the addition of voice identity not only to make it easier for members to connect but [also to] prevent fraud,” Kearns said.
The American Bankers Association reported prior to the pandemic that 82 percent of consumers preferred digital banking over banking in a branch. The health crisis has created new imperatives, however, with consumers relying more heavily on digital channels and FIs competing for their business more fiercely than ever in a time of economic uncertainty.
Digital innovations such as the enhancement of online and mobile banking tools, appointment setting, complete digital account onboarding and identity verification, as well as other features like vehicle buying services and loan closings will likely soon be must-haves. Credit unions that prioritize digital upgrades, combining analytics and automation, are less likely to see their customers drift to larger FIs.