By Roy Urrico
Ben Maxim — vice president of digital strategy and innovation at the $6.85 billion East Lansing, Mich.-based MSU Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU) and chief technology officer of Reseda Group LLC and subsidiaries — is the winner of Finopotamus’ inaugural Tekkie Award for Technologist of the Year.
In January 2020, Maxim moved into a new and critical role as Assistant Vice President of Digital Strategy And Innovation just as the credit union began taking a more proactive role in innovation and keeping tabs on emerging technology. Maxim recalled MSUFCU, which has a well-earned a reputation for staying at the forefront of cutting-edge technology, “wanted to see where we can leverage (technology) and find the partnerships to help with advanced strategies versus having to build everything ourselves all the time.”
Under Maxim’s guidance and leadership, the credit union continues to take innovation and financial technology collaboration to new levels. This includes the development of The Lab at MSUFCU, which pilots innovative solutions such as a conversational artificial intelligence platform; the launch of Reseda Group LLC, its wholly-owned CUSO, to help develop credit union technology; the introduction of Evergreen 3C, a Reseda Group subsidiary aimed at helping establish better relationships with members and communities through financial education solutions; and investment in Spave, a financial wholeness app.
In addition to his roles at MSUFCU and Reseda Group and subsidiaries, Maxim provides mentorship to fintech organizations such as Filene’s i3 program; Members Development Company’s NextUP, a credit union innovation training and development program; CURQL, a credit union network to identify, assess, partner with, and invest in fintech companies; and CU Build, a group whose mission is to spark innovation, cultivate learning and foster credit union development. He also works with MSU’s student programs like the Capstone Experience, SpartaHack, and Spartan Blockchain.
“We are really trying to create an ecosystem. There are places out in the industry where pieces are happening separately. Like incubators, accelerators, ways to get financing, ways to pilot and partner, but we are trying to pull it all together, and really try to help focus on fintechs working with credit unions,” said Maxim. “We also are really trying to help these fintechs realize that there is this great opportunity in the collaboration that is already inherent in the credit union industry.”
Receiving a Pandemic Boost
The plan was to slowly gear up the Lab in late summer 2020, but the pandemic accelerated the timeline. Maxim had a lot of digital ground to cover as credit unions and the world virtually shifted due to the pandemic.
Unofficially the Lab started May 2020 when COVID-19 concerns shut down branches and MSUFCU saw a massive increase in the number of incoming live chats with a 130% growth from the month before COVID-19 struck. At a time when there was no easy ability to scale the number of live support agents to help with this dramatic influx of requests, the chatbot was able to pick up the workload. The credit union started a video chat/banking pilot it got up and running in five weeks, Maxim explained.
In 2020, MSUFCU selected Boost.ai, a conversational artificial intelligence platform, to pilot the implementation and ongoing development of the two conversational chatbots named Gene and Fran, powered by Boost.ai, aimed at assisting the credit union's employees and members more efficiently.
· Gene focused solely on helping service representatives with quick information retrieval in real time as they interacted with members. Instead of pinging other team members when questions arose during a member interaction, the service rep can ask Gene for assistance.
· Fran helped with external communication with members. With 300,000-plus members, Maxim realized that MSUFCU service representatives needed to scale their capability to assist members both in terms of scope as well as quantity of interactions.
Powered by Natural Language Understanding (NLU), the sophisticated virtual agents detect the nuances of human language and understand the underlying intent of a member’s request. Boost.ai reduces false-positive responses by 90%, leading to 75% of customers choosing to talk to the bot over a human; supports any language; and comes out-of-the-box ready with 1000+ topics specifically targeted at the credit union space, along with more than 50 live virtual agents.
The chatbots are still growing their support capabilities at MSUFCU, with the first quarter of 2022 already experiencing a 20% growth in conversations when compared to the last quarter of 2021, all while retaining a resolution rate of over 96%.
Gene and Fran have raised their comprehension game as well, Maxim noted. This is measured by intents and the number of “questions” the chatbots know how to answer.
Gene started with 650 intents in January 2021 and has grown to 1,830 as of June 2022. Messages to Gene for June 2022 was 7,500. According to Maxim, Gene handled more than 3,000 conversations in June 2022, “A conversation is a series of messages that happen at one time (like a conversation).” As a result, Gene reportedly saves more than 2,000 employee-to-employee interactions every month.
Fran grew from knowing how to respond to 250 intents to responses for over 1,390 questions. Messages, how many questions asked of Fran by MSUFCU members each month, numbered 15,300 for June 2022. Fran handled 9,800 conversations in June 2022, which per Maxim, is the work of 15 full-time equivalents (FTEs).
"We've moved to a universal model where our employees now serve more like advisors," said Maxim. "We initially looked at conversational AI as a way to extend our service hours, but quickly realized its potential to streamline our internal support processes and make our employee's lives even easier."
Being Proactive in Financial Technology
In April 2021, MSUFCU stepped up its financial innovation drive by creating Reseda Group LLC, “to help drive fintechs in the credit union industry and help them understand why it's important to work with a credit union,” according to Maxim.
Because MSUFCU is a university-based credit union, many current solutions that started as pilots revolve around options for students, such as ChangEd, a roundup app that collects spare change to pay off student loans; and Pocketnest, a digital financial advisor that uses behavioral science and psychology to coach users.
Some other pilots included:
Larky Nudge, now in full deployment, delivers tailored-push notifications based on loyalty offers and geolocation. “We'll geo-fence a digital border around a location and as they approach the store (Larky) lets them know they have (for example) 15% off if (members) use their credit card,” explained Maxim.
GreenPath Financial Coach, a virtual chat bot, helps members looking to improve their credit scores, move forward after a credit decline, pay down debt or build healthy financial habits. It uses AI to deliver guidance through text-based conversation. Maxim noted GreenPath is a nonprofit in Michigan that works with a lot of credit unions. “We've extended that through at least December of this year.”
Financial Concierge, a self-service virtual assistant integrated into MSUFCU’s online banking system, utilizes a 10-question survey to learn more about members and their behavior. The virtual assistant then provides members with a tailored mix of financial resources based on the profile. Maxim said this pilot has completed its first phase, but added that multiple testing phases will take place in the future.
Maxim-izing Fintech Opportunities
Maxim, who began at MSUFCU some 15 years ago as a web developer, described his new expanded role. “I am vetting the technology on the front end for feasibility, viability, desirability, working with our research team to make sure we are getting a pulse from members on what ideas people are interested in, selling those that are different levels of strategy, and (guiding) project approvals.” Maxim then gives updates to the board, executive team, all employees. He also travels to conferences and events to prospect for more opportunities
Maxim also hired a team to help on the innovation side and get through the vetting and formalize the process. The innovation team help run The Lab sessions and create and manage the employee ideation program called CU Ignite, which MSUFCU is currently rolling out.
“We need to make sure we are good partners, and do not go the Blockbuster or Blackberry route where we think we are doing all these great things and then never innovating past a certain point,” said Maxim. He added, “We learned this lesson ourselves; we were really ahead of the game. Then we kind of got a little complacent. Now we are back at it again, and really understanding that we need to make sure to drive our core business to be successful. But then also introducing innovation and letting the two operations feed each other to keep both sides really strong.”