By Glen Sarvady
The term “echo chamber” has taken on a negative connotation recently, connected to Americans’ habit of reinforcing their own political beliefs by interacting only with kindred spirits. Leave it to an innovative credit union to turn that model on its ear, inviting its community to contribute to a more inclusive chamber.
Visions Federal Credit Union, a $3.9 billion, 46-branch institution serving upstate New York and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is an active member of BIG’s Innovation Club. “We used to be a fast follower- now we want to be a leader,” says Cynthia Schroeder, Visions’ Chief Information and Innovation Officer, with regard to her CU’s technology strategy. “We’re looking for that one big thing to make Visions stand out for ease of use and convenience.”
Along with a Visions colleague, Schroeder attended last June’s AXFI Conference in Minneapolis, co-sponsored by BIG and OnApproach. “We’re really heavy into data analytics, and we connected with a lot of new companies that we’re now looking to partner with,” she explains, adding that they’re returning for the 2017 conference June 11-14. One session that particularly piqued her interest was a hackathon demonstrating how quickly the Amazon Echo could be programmed to perform basic banking functions.
“We weren’t ready to go all-in on the Echo, but loved the idea of a fun factor/cool factor kind of thing for our members,” Schroeder continues. So she hunkered down with her team and devised a “smart assistant” to deploy in Visions’ branches. By now you’re familiar from TV commercials with the “Alexa” prompt that springs the Echo to attention. In their case all prompts begin with “Alexa, ask Visions….”
Visions’ cross-functional team brainstormed roughly 120 queries they chose to program for members’ benefit. The initial phase focuses on qualitative Q&A, bypassing account access and funds transfer capabilities for now.
In February Visions introduced its new solution at its busiest branch, placing it in a central lobby location in the Tech section of the facility. To encourage use, the credit union is giving away an Amazon Echo to one member, who as they enter the contest can try the product and/or suggest a new question.
Visions’ experience is further proof that customers are your best source for product research. Based on member suggestions the IT team added 10 new responses within the first two weeks of service. “Most of them fell into the ‘why didn’t we think of that?’ category,” says Schroeder. The most banking-oriented of these additions is “How do I make a deposit?” Members also want to know “How do I apply for a job?” and “Who is the CEO?” Since Visions offers free coffee at all branches, “How do I make coffee?” was another standout. Reinforcing the community spirit, there have also been multiple requests for details about local events such as recycling/shredding campaigns. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), requests for the credit union’s routing number have not received much action.
The natural question is, which demographics are embracing this solution? “We ask that question every day, but we’re told it’s literally across the board,” reports Schroeder, who adds that although Visions’ roots can be traced to IBM and Lockheed operations in the area, she does not believe its member base is significantly more tech savvy than the population at large. All ages seem interested in entering the Echo Chamber.
As for next steps, based on the favorable response Visions is proceeding with the rollout at some of its newer branches, and is emailing nearby members to encourage them to check it out. Because they have not yet “published the skills” to the web, it remains an in-branch capability only; Schroeder expects a pared-down query list will be made available for members’ home access eventually.
For now, though, Schroeder is gratified by the 100-plus daily queries that Visions’ product is fielding at a single branch. “A lot of them are about Donald Trump, though,” she laughs. There’s only so much a credit union can do to extricate us from the political echo chamber.
June 11-14 AXFI Conference in Minneapolis Minnesota. Join BIG and OnApproach at the premier educational event for credit unions and community bank professionals who are serious about financial innovation. Register now and save $200 with the early bird special. http://www.axficonference.com/.