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How Alliant Credit Union researched its way to a smarter member experience

member experience member experience

Norman Buchanan is Alliant Credit Union's first VP Member Experience. His unique role was created to meet the ever changing demands of the financial cooperative's member base.

In his bylined piece on member experience for Hot Topics, Norman outlines Alliant’s approach to building bespoke customer personas, the need for thorough independent research, as well as some of the more unexpected results that this can produce

I joined Alliant in April 2015, as the company’s first Vice President of Member Experience. The decision to create my then new role was driven out of a desire to fundamentally reorganize our customer experience function.

The questions we wanted answered were; How can we have a central organization responsible for gathering feedback from our members? How can we coordinate that feedback into actionable plans and initiatives? And finally, how could this drive improvement of member experience across our different channels and products?

The evolution of that process, and how we’re building this centralized member experience function, manifests in a number of key ways.

Coping with changing customer demographics

As with most established businesses, changing customer demographics – specifically the rise of millennials within our customer base – led us to reevaluate our processes. Firstly, we created a range of ‘customer personas’ as we went through the design of our products, looking for ways to improve them. Through those personas, we wanted to focus on who our core, heavy users of those products and services are today, but also, to preempt who our future users were likely to be, and how to address their needs. Specifically, when we develop these personas, we know millennials are going to be our core users in the future, so we incorporate them into all of the journey maps and design sessions for our new products.

We start developing personas by looking at the demographic data of our membership, specifically at how they’re behaving within the credit union. How are they engaged? What channels are they using? What products do they typically use? We then also take demographic data from all of our feedback sources, most notably our net promoter surveys. As we survey our members on a daily basis, based on specific transactions that are completed, and as we survey our membership as a whole through our relationship survey, we understand the demographics of those respondents very well.

We’re currently deep in this process with our online banking development, focusing personas specifically on this channel. Our plan is to do all of this internally ourselves, including potential primary research. We’re also in the process of doing some journey mapping with our lending division of specific online banking experiences, as well as expanding into our residential lending division.

We found that the greatest value of this journey mapping was the common understanding that developed of the end-to-end process across multiple internal and external teams. Through that process, a more formal definition of roles and responsibilities developed across the customer value chain that continues to, ultimately, improve the customer experience for our Alliant members.

As part of this process, there is something of a cultural piece to developing the personas as well. We’re taking the time to really immerse ourselves into each persona, and into the empathy map of these customers. For example, how do our millennial customers entering the workplace feel about carrying debt from their studies? What kind of concerns are they likely to have, and how can we best address them through our products and services? This is more cultural than scientific. After considering these differing factors, we have subsequently separated our millennial customers beyond just their age, for example looking more into their current earning bracket, as well as where they are with their careers.

Sometimes it is possible to get too wrapped around the axle of if you have the persona right, but the goal of building any persona is to have the organization put themselves in the shoes of that specific person. Personas produce a more human element to the design of our products and services.

Research: In-house first

To understand existing and prospective customers, we use a combination of internal and external sources, but we always start in-house. The data we collect on the feedback mechanisms and behavior of our membership base already offers the best view on how they’re interacting with our institution.

This can occasionally offer unexpected results. One interesting finding in our NPS segmentation analysis showed that our our most digitally active members turned out to be those who have been with Alliant for 13 years or longer. Conventional wisdom might suggest that these longer-term (likely more senior) members wouldn’t be as active across digital, however, the research revealed otherwise.

When we talk about millennials, there’s plenty of secondary research out there to get the majority of that picture painted. Where we do have gaps, we use primary research, specifically online surveys to help fill them out. We’re certainly not opposed to going externally. But in most cases, we have the means in-house to build that picture through a combination of our operational feedback and using primary techniques.

For example, in the development of our new Alliant mobile banking app, we employed a hybrid approach such as this. We provided the research from a standpoint of the customer interaction with the credit union plus the feedback they provided from this, and we then partnered with our development team to build out the personas.

‘Direct first’ today means ‘mobile first’

‘Mobile-first’ and ‘omnichannel’ are somewhat clichéd terms these days, but the truth is they’re forefront in our thinking. We’re very much focused on our digital assets, on being a direct bank first, and to think that way today means being mobile-first. We recently shipped our brand new mobile app, and that entire design process was handled from a mobile-first perspective. About 20% of our user base uses our digital products on mobile-only. Understanding what those users want out of their experiences was key to developing our current design.

The goal of this totally new app was to enable us to make changes more quickly to reflect technology upgrades or new member needs through iterative improvements. We included touch ID, our number one most requested feature, as well as built-in help that’s more intuitive, and the ability for members to message our member services team directly from the app itself instead of having to go through online banking to call us.

We pulled two years worth of feedback on the old mobile application to really understand the key hot-buttons to the mobile user. The results were no surprise: People want to be able to do everything they want via the channel they prefer. Our findings showed that if you’re a mobile-only user, the chief pain point is that there are some things you have to do in a different channel (such as online banking) that can’t be handled on mobile. Our goal was to consolidate these platforms, to make them as close as they can be, so mobile-only users can have the same or better experience with Alliant Credit Union as users in any of our channels. The feedback from the app has been fantastic so far, and we continue to iterate based on it.

Improving every day, through careful prioritization

First and foremost, feedback needs to drive improvement. The key function of our member experience organization is to consolidate all of the sources of member feedback so that we can understand not only the voice of the customer, but categorize them by channel and by product. In doing so, we can prioritize the improvement opportunities in each of our products and channels. We not only utilize feedback from our surveys; we also take it from emails sent to our response center, from calls to our call centers, as well as from our digital channels. We then marry that feedback with our operational execution and performance.

What are our members saying they want? What are their experiences? We consider how we feel we’re executing from an operational standpoint, and then utilize that at a product and channel level to prioritize our improvement.

At Alliant, the mindset is that we’ve got to get better every day, by either execution or by removing pain points in the user experience. Sometimes we come to a point where we feel like our operational metrics are in a good order, but feedback from the members says it’s not such a great experience. In cases like that, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and redesign.

We want to be the center of excellence in driving design thinking and human-centered design, as well as for journey mapping and service blueprinting. This is part of the practice that we’re currently building, bringing on member experience and service design professionals to establish ourselves as experts in that area.

We’ve found that the key to success is in prioritization, and in putting some science around it to back up those choices. There’s an analytic function in my group that’s taking the feedback, but also trying to understand who amongst our members has a particular pain point. How many members is it touching, and what’s the frequency that this member will experience a pain point such as this? And what do we think the level of pain is? Through those three dimensions, trying to prioritize our improvements down to a product and channel level, we can now go to our product and channel managers with a prioritized list that we can drive through the system. We all have limited resources, and the key to improvement is focusing on the biggest bang for your improvement buck.

Our future and human-centered design

Step one in our evolution here was enabling our management system to become a central repository of customer feedback. It was getting a process in place where data can be consumed and distilled down to our product and channel owners.

The next step in this process of building is asking ourselves, “Now that we have the feedback, what are some of the leading indicators to a great member experience?” There’s operational performance metrics and analytics that can help us understand what makes for a good and bad member experience. It’s essential to marry the execution with the feedback.

Our next evolution here will be around the cultural area of design thinking and human-centered design. Crucially, it’s disseminating this mentality throughout the entire organization from a standpoint of always asking the question, ‘Where is this member in their current customer interaction journey?’ The aim is to have everybody ask, ‘What did they do right before this experience, and what are they going to do right after this experience?’

A great example of that is a typical call center interaction. With such a large part of our membership being digitally oriented, the first time they contact us through a call center is most likely not their first contact with us as a company. They’re most likely contacting us with an experience they’ve had, for example an issue with the online platform that they’re unable to resolve unaided.

It’s through disseminating that journey-map, design thinking, human-centered design element throughout the organization – be it operations, front line, or our channel and product management organization – that will define if our next evolutionary step meets our needs, and those of our members.