Chad Ritchie – Solarity Credit Union
If you’ve ever filled out an online feedback or comment form—whether your opinion happens to be positive or negative—the thought has undoubtedly crossed your mind: “Why am I even bothering? No one is actually going to read this.”
But Solarity Credit Union prides itself on that very practice. The financial institution reads—and more importantly, digests—all feedback received from existing and prospective members. And that procedure goes all the way up the ranks to executive management.
It exemplifies the Yakima, Washington-based credit union’s commitment to the customer experience. To that end, Solarity also employs a team of user experience designers, engineers and architects led by a “chief experience officer.” The team’s sole mission is to research, test ideas, lead focus groups and perform interviews and surveys to gauge the overall user experience, as well as the ease of use and effectiveness of its online tools.
“User experience is number one,” says CIO Chad Ritchie. “We knew that if we were going to be a digital firm, we had to be really good at getting valuable feedback from people who use the service.”
Established in 1951, Solarity Credit Union is a not-for-profit, member-owned financial cooperative with six locations across Washington. With $746.5 million in assets under management as of 2018, Solarity’s primary focus is home loans, and it also offers traditional banking and other loan services.
As Ritchie notes, many members choose Solarity over traditional regional banks or large national banks because of the credit union’s strong emphasis on members’ wants and needs—and that user experience is largely crafted through the use of technology.
Over the last three years, Ritchie and Chief Experience Officer Ralph Cumbee have focused on digitizing operations throughout, starting with the switch to a central platform unifying all Solarity services. In addition to a mobile-friendly website and mobile apps, the credit union also established a digital loan application that borrowers can complete and submit in just 20 minutes.
According to Ritchie, the latter ties into Solarity’s overall push to make the home loan process a much simpler, user-friendly and informed one—rather than one that is notoriously overwhelming, even scary at times.
The team has also bolstered security efforts via antivirus and malware protection, fraud monitoring, state-of-the-art encryption techniques and multifactor and biometric authentication capabilities. As a result, Solarity prevented more than $394,000 in fraud in 2018.
Then there’s the essential role that customer feedback plays in all of this. As Ritchie notes, that input has resulted in numerous tangible changes: simpler home loan applications with digital signing capabilities; easier-to-navigate online banking; and tools that allow users to make online payments via debit cards. That ongoing member feedback cycle has ultimately led to quicker loan turnaround and more seamless day-to-day services, Ritchie says.
His team continues to focus on agility via open application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable them to tie in new and updated technologies with ever-evolving tools.
“The window for success is crucial,” Ritchie notes. “You’re creating an emotional connection through a digital channel. Financial institutions have been lagging in this. But if you don’t have incredible speed to market, you will be rolling stuff out later than everyone else.”
Tackling “digital disruption”
Ritchie started his journey with technology in 1995 while in the Air Force. At the time, he recalls, the internet was just taking off and he started tinkering with HTML in his spare time—and found that he had a knack for it.
Once out of the service, he began taking on programming jobs, eventually working his way up to the level of consultant for the government, higher education and private industry. His strength, he notes, is that as technology has evolved, he has readily evolved with it.
He joined Solarity in June 2015, starting out as the credit union’s vice president of digital experience. At that time, he explains, management knew where they wanted to go, but they simply didn’t have the right tools to get there.
“They needed to disrupt and reinvent how they looked at technology,” Ritchie says. “The question was: How could we become a company that could survive the digital disrupting?”
Today, he and his team continue to develop Solarity’s digital capabilities in the face of ongoing disruption, and Ritchie says he is driven by the open, transparent culture and dedication to both clients and employees. Solarity’s 170-plus staff members—from entry-level to management—are given a “ton of freedom,” he says, and are likewise encouraged to cast their eyes far afield.
For example, many have established individual development plans and succession plans, and some are even training their successors (despite that succession being many years down the road).
“We’ve built an organization that can pivot and shift quickly,” Ritchie says.
Without ever leaving the customer behind.
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