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What credit unions learned from COVID-19

The coronavirus has been as challenging for credit unions as it has been tough on the members they serve.

Think back to this same time last year –enjoying some of those last days of summer before children start going back to high school or heading off to college. Maybe sneaking in one final vacation before what we then thought was the Fall Chaos starting. As we reflect on the summer joys of 2019 – I bet we would all like to go back and have a 2020 do over, knowing what we know now.

After several months of dealing with COVID-19 and the economic and human ripple effects it has had, executives continue to wonder how their credit unions can be better prepared for the next crisis.

Credit unions varied in their level of preparedness as well as in their success confronting the COVID-19 crisis.Most had never considered having to close a branch other than for designated federal holidays. Nor had the thought of having staff work from home, for a week much less months, entered their minds.  How would you conduct business and keep your members happy?  It was a bit of a mystery.

Immediately credit unions invested in technology to enable remotework, such as video-conferencing and chat capabilities, and provided the equipment employees would need while continuing to serve their members in the way to which they were accustomed. They needed to determine what were “must haves” versus “nice to haves” to keep business going.  But still so many questions remained since most member transactions were going to involve online and digital channels.

  • How were employeesgoing to be trained?
  • How were members going to be able to understand the new way of doing business?
  • How was the member service center going to handle the influx of calls?
  • What services do we need to now offer that had not been available in the past?
    • e-Signatures?
    • Mobile Check Deposits?
    • Online Account Opening?
    • Online Loan Applications?

The list can continue on and on.

We spoke to several credit unions of varying sizes including BECU, Credit Union of Texas (CUTX), Evansville Teachers Federal Credit Union (FCU) and Hughes Federal Credit Union (FCU) as well as others to get their thoughts on COVID-19 preparedness and what they were doing to continue to provide their members with excellent service.

One sentiment that quickly came to the surface when talking with them was flexibility –whatever was once considered to be a standard operating procedure needed to be revisited. When asked if the credit union was adequately prepared to handle COVID-19 and the way operations had to pivot, 75 % said yes; 25% somewhat.

BECU closely monitors the situation and follows CDC guidelines and recommendations from local health officials to ensure the credit union is doing the right thing in support of the health and wellness of its employees, members, vendor partners and communities said Avery FitzPatrick, BECU spokesperson.

Jennifer Olvera, vice president of Engagement at CUTX, shared, “I don’t think anyone could say they were 100% prepared for how hard and fast the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We invested in some of the top industry technology, so that allowed us to easily shift our functions without impacting our members to working remotely. We did purchase additional laptops for all of our staff to enable them to do their jobs from home.”

According to Laura Barnett, director of Training at Evansville Teachers FCU, no one could ever predict all the operational shifts a global pandemic would bring, but the credit union quickly adapted to what we call the now normal and what we’re doing to meet the member’s and staff’s needs.

Kellie Terhune Neely, vice president of Marketing at Hughes FCU, said the credit union was more than prepared to handle COVID-19 with its various systems in place. “We saw a demand during the pandemic, and we shifted our staff to better accommodate those needs. We moved employees from branches where lobbies were temporarily available by appointment only to other office functions to assist with increases in online lending requests as well as to provide financial assistance.”

We asked the group – what were must have products and services that your credit union did not realize it need to have to serve members during the pandemic? And were you able to get them implemented in a timely manner?

Olvera said at CUTX, due to branches being closed and increased call volumes, we added the chatbot feature to our website. Our plan was to add this feature to our site this year, but we were able to get the chatbot feature and appointment setting online quickly. Texting was also added which has proven to be extremely beneficial for member contact. And we were able to do this much faster than anticipated.

Barnett explained at Evansville Teachers online account opening has tripled in volume and mobile and online/electronic banking services have experienced a tremendous spike as well. The credit union recently boosted its in-app offerings to provide faster P2P, external account transfers and enhanced bill pay functionality to accommodate the growing demand for contactless banking. While members already used Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, those options have become more popular now since consumers would rather hover their phone over a terminal to pay than use cash or even insert a card.

Hughes FCU noticed the need for a short-term financial solution, said Trehune Neely, so the credit union reinstated its annual Summer Loan program a month early to assist members with consolidating debt and paying off bills. “We offer the loan at our ‘One Low Rate,’ and we don’t switch loan rates based on credit score. The rate is simply one rate for all approved applicants. Members can save money and lower their monthly payment with fixed or adjustable rates.

“Additionally, one of the largest demands was from members submitting requests for financial assistance through our website and then remotely eSigning the appropriate documents for loan modifications. We had a 300% increase in eSignature usage during the pandemic. Many members readily adapted to the new procedures. Even first-time users found the process quick, easy and convenient,” Trehune Neely added.

BECU’s FitzPatrick added that the credit union has innovated quickly to launch programs, products and resources aimed at helping individuals due to the pandemic. Examples include funding more than $6 million in approximately 3,000 Income Interruption Loans, which provide up to $1,000 at 0% APR for members facing reduced income and offering payment deferral options on consumer loans and credit cards, and deferred student loan payments for up to 90 days. The credit union also funded more than 2,300 loans for over $91 million and secured jobs for 10,000 people through the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Unanimously, the credit unions agreed that they were able to implement these new products and services to members very quicklywith the help of their dedicated staffs as well as vendors offering their assistance.

Lastly, we wanted to know what member response has been to the new services and what best practices can be gleaned for moving forward.

Each credit union shared that the health and safety of members and employees are paramount and that drives almost all their actions. But in addition to that –members are pleased with how quickly their credit union handled their financial transactions. 

At CUTX Olvera said that its members have fully embraced the digital options given to them. “We have had a significant increase in online banking users, which has allowed us to spotlight the appointment setting and chatbot features on our website. Now when our members make an appointment, they text us that they have arrived and wait comfortably in their cars. When we are ready to see the next member, we simply text them and they come in for their appointment. This allows us to sanitize between members and limit exposure to all.”

Barnett added that Evansville Teachers members have been very appreciative that the credit union offers both in-office services with increased safety and cleaning measures, special banking for those at higher risk, as well as the enhanced remote mobile banking offerings for those who don’t want to come to the branch or drive-thru. “They have appreciated us increasing the daily dollar limits for check deposits via remote deposit capture and being available live via our contact center when they need immediate live assistance.In the future, lobby activity will rise again for larger transactions such as new accounts, loans, investments, etc., but I do believe members who are growing accustomed to doing simpler transactions such as payments, deposits and transfers online will continue doing so in the future. It’s simply too convenient not to!”

Trehune Neely shared that the value of a “work from home” strategy that is deployed quickly and effectively has been very successful at Hughes FCU. “Approximately 35% of staff tested remote work from home for a limited period of time during the pandemic. This was safely and securely tested for the COVID-19 event and is now available for the future if needed.

“While we are ready to serve our members through their preferred channels, including in-branch and/or in-person, we think members will be relying more on our digital channels. We know that by working together we can address our members’ financial needs during uncertain times.”

FitzPatrick said BECU’s overriding recommendation is to maintain the focus on the health and safety of members and employees. This includes following guidance from the CDC guidelines and local health officials. Other adviceBECU shared includes:

  • Plan ahead: Crisis Management and Business Continuity planning efforts served us well and provided a great foundation on which we could make decisions and take action more quickly.
  • Communicate: Keep important stakeholders – like employees, members and vendor partners – informed of decisions and actions to help avoid ambiguity and additional stress in this type of situation.
  • Listen: Ensure you have mechanisms in place to hear from employees, members and other partners to best identify any barriers or challenges they are facing that may need to be addressed.

Regardless of the size of your credit union, it is apparent that members come first.  After all that is a motto that rings true at credit unions.  Everyone has had to take a step back and reflect upon the “new” normal of how to do business.  Credit unions and their vendor partners are doing everything they can to ensure that business continues to be streamlined and easy for members.

Special thanks to IMM, the eSignature provider that specializes in eSignature and digital transaction solutions for financial institutions,LemonadeLXP, a SaaS learning experience platform that helps financial institutions with the human side of digital transformation,SilverCloud, a provider of support solutions built for banks and credit unions and TCI, the provider of DecisionLender 4 (DL4), a consumer loan origination solution, for sharing their credit union customersto make this article possible.

Catherine Laws is an EVP at the William Mills Agency, a public relations and marketing firm based in Atlanta.  During her 25 year tenure – she has worked with more than 100 agency clients in the FINTECH space.  

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