Placing people before profits, Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union has gained a unique edge amongst traditional banking service providers. A financial cooperative owned by the members of the credit union, those who have accounts are also the company’s owners. With a genuine belief to always develop and continuously improve its services for its members and employees, Affinity Plus Credit Union has recently been recognized by Forbes as Minnesota’s “Best-In-State Credit Union,” an achievement of which the company is extremely proud.
Since its inception in the early 1930s, Affinity Plus has grown to serve nearly 200,000 members with loans, credit cards, mortgage services, investment accounts and much more. Responsible for the company’s operational performance, President and CEO Dave Larson is leading the way in the delivery of affordable and sustainable financial services which improve the lives of the credit union’s members.
To support employees and cater to growing member demands for agile, digital financial services that provide increased accessibility, exceptional performance and ease of use, the credit union has undergone an extensive digital transformation which impacts all areas of the business. At the heart of Affinity Plus’ technology foundation, Chief Information Officer (CIO) Teri Laufers explains that not only did she seek to execute high standards while implementing a robust digital infrastructure across a three-year transformation, she was also the executive project sponsor during the conversion journey, ensuring that the needs of both members and employees were top of mind.
“We have transformed seven of our major systems in three years. The goal was to improve these systems, drive efficiency and allow for better service, both for employees and for our members,” she explains. “The systems had to be adaptable and flexible as the credit union continues to progress, and be increasingly responsive to our members’ needs. We wanted the ability to be more nimble. Technology is moving fast; our members’ behavior in how they interact with the credit union is evolving, and we need to be able to respond effectively. Moving forward, we feel confident in our ability to do so.”
In 2016, the company undertook an extensive review of its financial and digital systems, which started the slate of conversions in motion. The credit union’s real estate loan origination system, Encompass, was the first major launch in this slate of changes, and catered towards increased member demands for these services. By the end of 2018, the implementation of a new core processing system included 65 vendor integrations and 85 custom programs.
One area of focus was of particular importance to Affinity Plus: the implementation of a much-needed innovative, mobile-first, member-orientated digital banking platform. With mobile apps forecasted to generate approximately US$189bn in revenues by 2020 via app stores and in-app advertising, it was imperative for Affinity Plus to take advantage of this growing opportunity. The credit union set a Board goal to launch the new mobile and online banking platforms in late 2017, but this task was not without its challenges. Through extensive testing and fixes over months, Larson explains that Affinity Plus did not feel the system was in the best place to support members.
“We were having latency issues which would have impacted the quality of experience for our members, so we made the decision to push the launch back a couple of months. In reality, we could have launched our new mobile app on schedule as planned, but we didn't think it was the right thing to do, and we had the full support of the Board in this decision,” Larson says. “We went to the employee base and told them that we were going to hold off because we didn’t feel that it was what the members would want for their experience. I believe that sharing the challenges that you face is just as important as talking about the successes. Employees know that we, as an organization, have challenges – just like they do themselves.”
Placing members at the heart of its services, Laufers stresses that millennials have acutely disrupted traditional communication methods, leading Affinity Plus to place further investment in providing intuitive, digitally-led solutions. “What we’re finding in our research is that a lot of millennials are not just ‘mobile first’ – they are moving toward ‘mobile only’,” she explains. “We really feel that for many, mobile is an easier way to communicate, and I think it's a great way to further build that relationship. Certainly, conversations, texting and different kinds of personal connections via mobile are a great way to reach the millennial generation and others.”
Affinity Plus’ new digital tools have effectively showcased the credit union’s desire to cater to the evolving needs of its members, as well as for further self-service options and a better overall digital experience. In April 2018, the credit union debuted its new mobile banking app and online banking platform. Noting that the organization has been highly responsive in enhancing member experiences through mobile, Larson outlines that 59% of members are now utilizing Affinity Plus’ mobile and online banking services – a 21% increase in mobile app usage in less than one year’s time. Following its launch, the new mobile app has received more than 19,000 reviews on the App Store with a 4.8 star rating.
“There’s definitely a lot we want to do to enhance the member experience through mobile. With the App Store rating increase from 1.5 stars in 2017 to 4.8 stars today, we could just say, ‘Let's just call it good’. But we have a strong internal focus on the voice of the member, and we want to ensure we’re taking their feedback into account on an ongoing basis,” says Larson. “We diligently monitor feedback on social media and through our net promoter score program, and we host focus groups and conduct surveys. We really want members to share with us what additional features they are looking for in the mobile app, and we will continue to add to our project list based on their input. We know that digital is a huge part of people's lives today and are putting appropriate focus there. Our results clearly demonstrate that.”
Following the successful launch of its new digital solutions, Affinity Plus launched its new core operating system in October 2018. “We hadn't changed our core system in 20 years, and we really felt that the technology that we were using was, in some cases, outdated. We really needed to propel ourselves forward,” says Larson. “One of our key objectives overall was to provide members and employees a better experience in terms of their interactions, whether working with the credit union as an employee or interacting with us as a member.”
With a new core system in place, Affinity Plus will have more opportunities in the future to explore the use of cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots and voice technologies to boost its technology infrastructure. “In recent years we have also placed significant investment in information security and business intelligence (BI),” says Larson. “Today we have an entire department supporting our security efforts. Additionally, our BI group didn’t exist four years ago, and now we have eight employees that work with our data analytics to allow us to better understand our member information and communicate with our members more effectively.”
Providing exceptional support
Remaining conscious of the growing trend for digital innovation, but also to support those that prefer face-to-face interaction or are slower to adopt new technologies, Affinity Plus has also placed significant investment in developing next generation branches, which house open technology bars, face-to-face interactions and a plethora of new digital tools. “The days of having tellers and lenders in the branch are evolving more toward technologists who can support members with both their financial and technology needs,” says Larson. “The reality is that not all of our members understand the technology, so there is a lot of opportunity for us to really assist and engage them, and to show them how technological enhancements in banking can really add convenience to their lives.”
Larson adds that employees are coached to offer this support to members when they see opportunities – for example, when a member is in line wanting to make a deposit and they're using their smart phone. “We certainly want to help them with their deposit, but we consider it an opportunity to show them how to get the job done in a different, more convenient way,” he says. “In most cases, they might be aware but are a little afraid. With a technologist mindset, our employees are ready to aid them. I think the environment that we have set up is really conducive for that.”
Affinity Plus’ commitment to transparency throughout the conversion process has proved beneficial to both members and employees. Along the way the credit union highlighted the many advantages of the new systems to generate excitement and anticipation for the changes. Getting more than 560 employees on board and focused on one major initiative is no easy feat, yet Affinity Plus took on the challenge with gusto, creating an entire brand around its three-year journey, which it referred to internally as the ‘Journey Beyond’. “We wanted this extensive project to have a life of its own: a different logo and different colors and a lot of fun surrounding the journey really allowed us to bring proper focus throughout the organization. Employee buy-in was key to our success,” says Larson. “Another aspect important to our success is that our senior management group is very visible and accessible to our employees. It was important during a project of this magnitude to have multiple touchpoints.”
Employee and member communication peaked at various times during the three year journey, ensuring that Affinity Plus kept the benefits of the changes at the forefront. The credit union also provided outlets for members to ask questions and voice frustrations.
Although technology has been a key driver in enhancing Affinity Plus’ service offerings, Larson is keen to stress that the company would not have achieved its goals without its dedicated workforce. Harnessing a project-oriented mindset, more than 230 employees across the credit union contributed in either a full- or part-time capacity. And that has created the appetite for many to explore what’s next – to take the credit union even further. “We crossed the finish line and we had great success, but our employees are now thirsty for more innovation, more projects, and more opportunities to grow personally and professionally,” says Larson, noting the need for balance in driving innovation and progress while determining when members and employees are ready.
With more than 28,000 hours of training and development for employees leading up to the core conversion in October 2018, Affinity Plus doubled the size of its training team and recruited temporary trainers from within its employee base. All employees took part in some form of large group training and completed hours of practice in the months that followed. They learned and stretched and worked outside their comfort zones. And the investment has proved to be invaluable. Undertaking a confidence check at the 30-day mark post-conversion to the new core system, employees reported a confidence level of rating of 4.0 on a scale of 1-5. Moving forward, Affinity Plus has also partnered with LinkedIn Learning to further provide essential life skills and learning opportunities, which will benefit both members and employees.
“We are really proud of what we have been able to do with our mobile and digital offerings. We’re making members’ lives easier by making their experience that much better,” says Laufers. “Our employees have been presented with a lot of challenges, a lot of professional growth and a lot of opportunities in being a part of these projects, and they really rose to the occasion.”
Agreeing, Larson adds: “For the last three years, we had so many projects and conversions happening, yet we still had to serve our core function – running a credit union to support the needs of our members. And we did that well. During this time, member satisfaction on net promoter scores remained high, and we received positive member feedback and awards for running a high-quality financial institution. To be named the top credit union in the eyes of our members and our employees is something that continues to give us a tremendous sense of pride.”
Through the focus Affinity Plus has placed on consistently improving and advancing its digital offerings, members will continue to see investments in the cooperative. Growth and change – with the member at the forefront – will propel the credit union forward and set it apart from others in the field.