USAA Strives for Personalization in Its Banking Apps

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Editor's Note: This article is part of a series of profiles of Bank Technology News' 2015 Digital Bankers of the Year.

USAA has been a digital banking leader in many ways; it's hard to pick one. It's one of the few to offer a virtual assistant — Siri-like voice-activated banking. It was first to roll out face, voice and fingerprint recognition to its entire customer base. It was among the first to sign up for Apple and Android Pay. As it continues to build out its digital offerings for its 10 million members around "life events" such as buying a home or a car, the team at USAA is making those experiences increasingly personal.

The fact that USAA is a bank, an insurance company, and an investment company gives it an edge, according to Chris Cox, head of digital experience delivery for the San Antonio-based company. "Where we want to perpetually improve is our ability to meet [members] when they're considering their purchase, when they make their purchase and require finance, once the purchase is made and they need insurance, all the way through the experience of selling," Cox said.

USAA recently launched a new tool for its mobile banking app and website called "Rent or buy?" It asks five basic questions about the user's budget, credit, cash flow and future plans, quickly processes the yes or no answers and issues a verdict on whether the user should buy a home or keep renting.

"Our members have asked for a tool like this. They're looking for simple, interactive digital tools that help them competently make decisions such as whether they should be purchasing or renting," said Paul Trevino, director of product management for real estate lending at USAA.

USAA recently added a feature to its home-buying app, Home Circle, that lets the user walking down the street see information about houses for sale in the area superimposed on the image he sees in his smartphone camera. It calls the feature Specs and internally refers to as augmented reality.

The idea for Specs came through an internal contest. USAA also draws ideas out of employees through such contests and "enterprise innovation communities" where they can submit and collaborate on ideas.

"We believe some of our best ideas come organically from within the organization because our employees are members," Cox said. "This is one of the best ways we have to make sure that with precision and rigor we bubble up a lot of good ideas and work with them to figure out which ones have the most value to our members."

The biggest problem is deciding which ideas to act on. "What drives that process is, where can we add the most value to members, what has the most immediate relevance?" Cox said. "That's much more important than the raw coolness factor of a new idea."

To determine how relevant new concepts are, USAA puts them in front of member advisory panels and conducts traditional usability testing with members as well as many pilots.

A cornerstone of USAA's mobile banking strategy is personalization. "That means, at the point of authentication, being able to dynamically render an experience that demonstrates to the member that we know them," Cox said. The company tries to combine its internal profile of the customer with records of past transactions, current transactions, and if possible, social channels.

For instance, it wants to know if a member is a first-time homebuyer or an experienced homebuyer, and what type of advice, products or services he or she needs. One feature USAA has planned for later this year is a personalized landing page - upon log in, the member sees the tasks they do most frequently.

"We're going to make it easy for the member to navigate to all the other features and functions within the mobile app, but we're going to focus on what that member does most frequently with us," Cox said.

It's also building personalization into its Siri-like virtual assistant, Nina. "We're intensely focused on making sure we can imagine a member experience that requires a member to tell us what they want, as opposed to having them navigate to what they need," Cox said. "In our future, that will become more apparent.

USAA recently built a handoff feature, wherein when someone clicks "Contact Us" in the mobile app, they're connected to a member service representative who is given information about the member and what that person was just trying to do and therefore greet the person by name and immediately help her, rather than ask a series of potentially redundant questions.

"I try to avoid using the term omnichannel, but this is a good example of where we are passing context from one channel to another," Cox said.

Members can begin to buy an insurance policy in one channel, tap "click to call" or "click to chat" and USAA will pass the member's authentication and the context of what that member was doing over to the call center.

"That's something we want to be able to do pervasively across all of our lines of business," Cox said.

USAA also has a "click to see" strategy that lets members invoke the streaming video capabilities of their phone to speak with a member service rep face to face. "Even the most digitally active members will have certain moments of truth or critical needs where they're going to need to speak to a member services rep," Cox said. "We're trying to make that connection and interaction seamless wherever possible. That's much easier said than done."

USAA tries to be aware of members' day to day lives when they're deployed overseas — sometimes they can only make one phone call a week or only go online for a certain number of minutes a week, for instance, so banking tasks need to happen fast and not prompt questions. This drives efforts to reduce the number of clicks and links.

USAA was among the first to market with Apple Watch and Android watch apps.

"We're constantly looking at how those devices might morph over time and working with partners in the industry to make sure we can compress the time between when a new device is announced and when we're able to deliver a corresponding solution," Cox said. "The Apple Watch was an example where we were one of the few FIs to have an app available the day the product was launched."

USAA has also shown leadership with biometric authentication. Earlier this year, it was the first financial institution in the U.S. to roll out voice, facial and thumbprint recognition to all its members. "You'll see us continue to evolve the use of face and voice recognition and Touch ID capabilities," Cox said.

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