Remote banking applications that proved their value when bank branches closed during Covid are thriving as financial institutions and customers learned how to use them and enjoyed the convenience.
“Covid accelerated credit union and community banks’ digital roadmaps,” said Jed Taylor, chief product officer at Eltropy and former CEO of POPi/o. “When branches closed during Covid every community financial institution experienced where their digital channels were lacking. Since then I’ve seen more action and less talk in building out digital channels to support members and customers. Covid helped consumers and bankers alike realize that most banking conversations can be done digitally. When Covid happened branches closed and video took over as branch replacement strategy, some of that traffic has remained on digital channels.”
Eltropy began its corporate life with text messaging, which credit unions found an effective way to communicate with members, especially for collections, said Ashish Garg, the company’s founder and CEO. While members often avoided the embarrassment of answering a phone call from their credit union when they were behind on a payment, they would answer a text message where they can chat without having to speak to a person, and click on a link to make a payment. Since the communication is all by computer, neither co-workers nor family members will overhear the conversation.
“When the pandemic began, branches were shut, but credit union still had to reach out to members — by phone, text or video,” added Garg. “We started noticing credit unions bought text messaging from us and video from POPi/o. Credit unions said they had too many systems and asked why we didn’t put them all together in a single place.”
So in May 2022 Eltropy acquired POPi/o, which provides a video banking platform, and Marsview, which uses AI to automate the understanding of consumer intent in text and chat, so consumers can get answers to routine queries and simple questions. The company added 100 new customers in 2020, the first year of Covid. In 2021 it added 150 more. Last year it grew by another 230, and it’s on track to surpass that number of new customers this year, said Garg.
Now with its acquisitions Eltropy provides a digital conversation platform which integrates text messaging, video banking, live voice and AI-powered chat. Its customers are credit unions and smaller community banks.
Cobalt Federal Credit Union in Nebraska started with Popi/o for video banking in 2018.
“It has just really grown and grown,”said Chasmine McIntosh, vice president, digital banking. “Our video banking has tripled in size because it speaks to members the way they want to engage. With video banking they can do everything they could do standing face to face with a banker in a branch — open an account, get a loan, and deposit a check. Customers have really taken up digital. When we look at the numbers, they do 2,000 to 2,500 video calls a month.
“Video allows us to complete our strategic plan as we grow and encompass more communities, especially low income communities. We don’t need to put a branch in a new territory as long as we can provide them with digital tools.”
The organization began life as the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Credit Union.
“Our roots are in the military, so it is important to be able to serve members no matter where they are in the world,” McIntosh said.
Next up for the credit union’s 118,000 members is an electronic notary service through Eltropy. The video app is also used in the credit union’s Interactive Teller Machines (ITM) which support conversation with a banker and lets users transact even if they have forgotten their debit card.
Cobalt doesn’t use text messaging but it is evaluating text and AI applications, and Eltropy is in the mix, she said.
Beehive Federal Credit Union in Idaho started implementing Eltropy in February, and went live with video banking in May, said Morgan Smith, digital operations manager. It added the company’s AI chat bot in August and plans to expand to text messaging early in 2024 with Eltropy’s platform of fully integrated text, chat, and video.
“We picked them because we needed a good way to move physical conversations to digital,” Smith explained. “This has helped so our members can interact with us in any way they like. Members may ask the chat bot a question it doesn’t understand, but we can train it,” Smith said. “It is now a pretty seamless experience for members, although for more complex questions they will want to talk to a person. But it gives members 24×7 access and we have had good feedback.”
The credit union serves members of the Church of Latter Day Saints who are all across the country and working around the world as missionaries, he added. “We have widespread membership who want face-to-face interaction.”
Eltropy continues to build on the momentum that remote banking apps developed during Covid.
Garg said traditional self-service phone response systems often force members to pick up the phone and wait in queue lines even for the simplest of queries, which make up 80 percent of incoming calls.
The Eltropy AI engine has more than 400s pre-built intents focused exclusively for credit unions and community banks, said Murali Mahalingam, SVP of AI at Eltropy, and previously founder of Marsview.ai . The system, which Eltropy calls Intelligent Virtual Agent, will route more complex calls to the appropriate person or department.
New installations of the text and video platform are fully integrated, but some legacy systems are not. In a major release later this year they will all come together on the same platform with the same user interface, Garg said.
“We have three levels of integration,” explained Garg. “Someone goes to a website and wants to call a credit union, we can move them to text. Phone calls are synchronous, I can’t do anything else while I answer a call, while an agent can text more than one person. A caller may start with an AI chatbot but then can have a seamless transaction between the AI and humans across channels.”
An agent can switch from text to voice with the push of a button while remaining in the same single secure communication channel.
The challenge credit unions are running into is that since Covid fewer and fewer people want to go to a branch to have that conversation, Garg said. During the pandemic many people became comfortable with remote communications, whether chatting with grandchildren on FaceTime, participating in community boards or church services through Zoom or working at jobs with Microsoft Teams or Google Meet. Through months of remote communication people learned they can accomplish a lot of life’s tasks without jumping into a car and driving 15 minutes or an hour to an in-person meeting.
Video also lets specialized experts at a financial firm meet with customers anywhere for consultations, which is good for customers and for the subject matter experts, especially the universal bankers.
“Post Covid staffing has been a challenge,” Taylor added. “It is harder to hire and harder to retain people who have this knowledge. If you lose a universal banker you lose a lot of knowledge.”
Especially in rural areas where travel between branches might take hours and limit the work a banker can accomplish in a single day, video is a win-win, providing customers a loan consultation they can do at a local branch’s video room, from their own living room, or using a mobile phone while sitting in their car or at a coffee shop. It also helps credit unions maintain relationships with military personnel even when they are overseas on assignment. Taylor said it has helped couples who wanted to close on a loan, even while one partner was away on military duty.
Barbra Lowman, president of CUNA Strategic Services, is pleased that Eltropy acquired POPi/o and Marsview. Both Entropy and POPi/o were on the CUNA Strategic Services list of recommended tech providers for credit unions.
“We identify the problems credit unions face and prioritize them,” Lowman said. “A lot of my time is talking to credit union leaders to prioritize their issues. Then we go out to find solutions, some from mature providers, and some from startups. Then we educate the vendors in how to engage and operate in the credit union industry.”
Eltropy uses APIs to link to the most common credit union core systems — Finacore, Fiserv DNA and Jack Henry Symitar. It uses AWS cloud for all its operations.