Doubling Down on One-to-One Service in the Digital Era

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Cathy Hufstetler
SVP of Lending, 121 Financial Credit Union
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Picking the right partner is critical to member-centric technology integration.

The experience of helping members through the 2008 recession firmly cemented my commitment to the credit union industry. Thanks to our structure, leadership and culture, our mortgage team at 121 Financial Credit Union had a lot of flexibility to be proactive in working with our borrowers before delinquency and the stress that causes took hold of their financial lives. The big financial institutions, with mortgages owned by Freddie and Fannie, were more reactive and delayed assistance until borrowers were already delinquent. 

The 2020 pandemic was the second time I knew I’d chosen the right place to develop my now 30-year career in lending. When COVID-19 took hold in our neighborhoods, many banks were unable to offer support. As a low-income designated credit union, we stood firm in our commitment to ensure financial wellness for our community. As just one example, jumping into the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) enabled our $599 million credit union to preserve more than 4,130 jobs across Jacksonville, Fla. 

Prospering alongside our members through both crises is a major point of pride for our entire team. Yet, we don’t spend a lot of time rehashing the past. We are consistently looking ahead, strategizing the technology, processes and operational improvements that will ultimately empower our team to deliver truly innovative financial solutions. Whether that’s converting to an entirely new core banking platform – a massive undertaking we completed in 2016 – or launching an industry-leading digital lending solution – a 2020 project alongside AdvantEdge Digital – 121 Financial’s innovation initiatives are driven by the promise to set our members up for financial success, in good times and bad. 

Doubling Down on One-to-One Service

Technology innovation can sometimes fall victim to the misconception that digital replaces humans and that member experience will suffer. In actuality, credit unions have a big opportunity to double down on one-to-one service thanks to the availability of advanced, data-driven technology. The AdvantEdge Digital lending solution we’ve rolled out, for example, has a loan simulation feature that allows members to play around with different scenarios to make the healthiest borrowing decision for their unique circumstances. It’s the same kind of experience you’d have sitting across the desk from a loan officer, yet it’s right there on your laptop or smartphone. 

Consumers value self-service for many reasons, but mainly it’s the kind of experience they are getting from digital-native brands across all aspects of their lives. They shouldn’t have to give up a personalized digital experience to work with a local lender. 

Easy and fast are two other expectations today’s borrowers have for the loan experience. Before launching our enhanced digital lending solution, we struggled with online abandonment rates due to the complexity of our prior platform’s online application. Applicants would get to a certain point in the process and then simply drop off. In just the first few weeks of working with the AdvantEdge Digital lending solution, our average abandonment rate dropped by nearly 20 percentage points. What’s more, the average time for a current member to apply for a loan had been cut in half – from 12 to 6 minutes.

Adapting Technology to the Member

In my experience, a big part of success with any new technology platform comes from a good working relationship with the technology’s provider. It’s the rare solution that works immediately out of the box. Providers and their solutions have to be flexible enough to evolve with the times and as members' needs or preferences dictate. Credit unions pride themselves on knowing their members, and in most cases, they will know their members much better than a technology provider. It’s critical the provider be willing to listen, and importantly, adapt the technology to the member (vs. expecting members to adapt to the technology). 

This has been our experience with the AdvantEdge Digital team, which relies on a philosophy known as human-centered design for the continuous iteration of its digital lending solution. With persistent feedback from 121 Financial, AdvantEdge Digital built, beta tested and piloted its way through multiple versions of the digital lending solution to get it just right for our members. Our team identified a couple different aspects of the solution that could be tweaked to improve the overall flow and consistency of the member’s experience. As an example, our team advised AdvantEdge Digital that 121 Financial’s members would have a more consistent experience if the solution’s payment simulator pulled data from NADA guides, rather than Kelly Blue Book, to match the value we use for the lending decision.

Delivering Human-to-Human Experiences in the Digital Channel

The more our members choose to engage with us via online and mobile channels, the more important it will be to have a laser focus on the experience. If a member comes to a branch, our team can talk with them, get to know them and help them make the most financially healthy decisions. The digital experience doesn’t afford this kind of human-to-human engagement naturally, so you really have to work at it. And that’s our goal; everything we do drives at creating digital processes that are the best in the market. We’re excited to have a partner like AdvantEdge Digital that understands this imperative and is willing to tweak, change, shift and mold the technology until it delivers exactly the kind of experience modern members expect, and of course, deserve.