SAN FRANCISCO — Want to improve the customer experience? Start by making the employees' tools better.

Improving the employee experience — which is still saddled with many manual processes — is "just as important" as making the user experience better, John Harrell, vice president of product management with USAA, said at SourceMedia's Digital Mortgage Conference on Thursday.

His point was echoed by others throughout the day. For instance, Jalaj Jha, head of marketing and digital products for home loans at Capital One, said not making the backend as modern and cutting-edge as the frontend would be like ordering an Uber with a fleet of 20-year-old cars.

Mortgages are sophisticated products, but are woefully lagging behind things like consumer loans in turns of adopting technology. The need to move beyond requiring employees to cut and paste potential borrower's information is particularly acute, panelists said.

USAA, for instance, is starting with employee-facing technology as it considers how to evolve its mortgage program.

Earlier this year it ran a pilot with mortgage software firm Roostify that lasted for about a month and used a handful of loans. The main objective was to test data mapping and connectivity with the loan origination system. The company was also looking to help call center employees focus on remaining warm toward customers, rather than stressing out while toggling screens.

Anecdotally, it was a success, Harrell said. One piloter wrote: "I found that the system was much easier to follow than launching [the company's loan origination software] and the work flow then having to navigate both to get through. The system streamlined that process and was very user-friendly."

Some, Harrell and Jha included, believe lenders must continue to partner with fintech companies to improve the customer experience.

"We don't see fintechs as competition or something we are scared of," Jha said. Rather, Capital One views them as something to develop, and potentially acquire.

Of course, the consumer-facing part of the equation also needs a lot of work.

"It cannot be as paper heavy," Jha said.

To get the right results, however, requires what's already considered gospel in Silicon Valley: putting yourself in the shoes of customers.

"At the end of the day, it's what the customer wants," he said.

A smooth experience won't happen overnight in a heavily regulated product — even if tech companies are involved.

"You can't do everything day one," Michael Tannenbaum, senior vice president at SoFi, said during a separate panel.