Local credit union’s newest worker: Amazon’s Alexa

Virginia Credit Union developed an application for Amazon's Echo virtual assistant. (Courtesy Amazon)

Virginia Credit Union developed an application for Amazon’s Echo virtual assistant. (Courtesy Amazon)

Looking to stay ahead of the competition, Richmond’s biggest credit union is showing off its tech skills.

Virginia Credit Union, a $3.3 billion institution headquartered on the Southside, has developed an application for use on the Amazon Echo, a voice-activated device that operates with the help of talking digital assistant “Alexa.”

Companies and individuals outside of Amazon can develop “skills” for Alexa, similar to how apps are created for smart phones and tablets.

Those skills allow the device to understand new prompts and perform new tasks beyond its default skills, like checking the weather, playing music, answering questions, reading the news and to-do lists.

The skills VACU is testing include allowing its 254,000 members to check wait times at its soon-to-be 18 branches, and have Alexa read out the credit union’s latest interest rates on loans and deposit accounts.

“As a credit union we want to certainly be able to bring a lot of forward-thinking capabilities to our members and we want to be seen as a technology leader among our peers,” said Chris Saneda, VACU’s chief information officer.

Chris Saneda

Chris Saneda

VACU appears to be the first local financial institution among a small group of mostly larger banks jumping into the field of digital assistant skills.

Capital One, Saneda said, is one of the front runners in the financial industry in adopting such technology. Last year the credit card giant began rolling out an Alexa skill set that allows customers to check balances and make payments to their account.

While the initial skills VACU is testing are fairly simple tasks, Saneda foresees a time soon when customers can conduct financial transactions through these devices.

“Now we’re looking at how we extend our walls outside of the transaction,” Saneda said. “You might say, ‘Alexa, can I afford the brand-new 2017 corvette? It would know, it could take that information and go all the way into your bank accounts and credit score and give you assistance. That’s down the road, but that’s where we see this going.”

The credit union also is testing a new mortgage app to simplify and speed up the home loan process. For example, it allows customers to take pictures of loan documents with smartphones and send them to the credit union’s loan processors, and to track the status of certain loan documents.

“We have found that it takes about four days off the loan process and reduces errors,” Saneda said.

Both the Alexa skill and mortgage app were rolled out quietly in recent months to VACU employees and a group of members, in what Saneda called a pilot phase. The credit union will gauge the response from customers and decide how and if to roll out new services.

“We’re playing with these to see the response,” Saneda said.“Five to 10 years down the road we think these types of technologies are going to be commonplace, so we want to make sure we can be in the forefront.”

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