Virtual assistant

Santa Rosa Credit Union Launches Virtual Assistant to Facilitate Digital Transactions

One of the new faces at Community First Credit Union is a real go-getter. In fact, she’s available 24 hours a day digitally to answer a wide range of questions the nearly 60,000 members of the Santa Rosa-based credit union might have – from a balance inquiry to helping pay a bill.

Maggie is a local talent who, according to the financial institution, is “progressive, enlightened, down to earth, with a geeky side to her.” She’s also a virtual assistant bot designed to help Community First attract younger customers who aren’t likely to visit one of its 11 regional branches, even after the pandemic. Instead, those customers might want to have a chat session with her, as many are comfortable with her digital savvy Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

“People now want to interact in a conversational way. They don’t want to search through a website,” said Todd Sheffield, CEO of Community First.

Although the credit union is relatively small, with assets of $556 million, it has been a pioneer in introducing digital products locally.

Community First, in fact, would be the first community bank or credit union in the United States to have its own virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence, Sheffield said.

“People have a bias that small institutions don’t have the technology they need,” Sheffield said.

He noted sprawling Bank of America led the way with its virtual assistant, Erica, which has topped more than 10 million users. But there have been few followers in banking so far.

Community First began testing Maggie late last year with its customers in an effort to fix bugs and help tailor better responses to the countless queries it received. “We monitor all conversations so we can improve Maggie,” the CEO said.

Amid the local public health emergency stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus outbreak and general nervousness about entering retail spaces, Community First did more promoting Maggie to customers. Branch visits fell 50% last month, while Maggie’s unique users fell from 600? in January to 1,100 in March. The bot will be financially viable at around 4,000 unique users per month, Sheffield said.

“We’re trying to expand our service window without significantly increasing our expenses,” he said.

The nonprofit member co-op still operates a call center with locations in Lakeport and Fort Bragg available during regular business hours.

So how does the digital assistant work? Maggie appears on the bottom left of the Community First website and can help customers with everything from locating nearby ATMs to transferring money between accounts. A popular question has been why a particular debit card transaction was declined.

“If it’s Sunday afternoon and our call center isn’t open, we can respond,” Sheffield said. Responses to denial of such transactions can range from fraud to insufficient funds available.

The digital bot is named after Maggie Wattles, the credit union’s first paid employee and later its first president. A fact sheet provided by Community First calls her a 34-year-old teacher who lives somewhere along the Russian River and “has special assignments for the early ’70s Eagles, Doobie Brothers and ‘Maggie Mae’ of Rod Stewart”.

Her avatar features shoulder-length brown hair, glasses, and large earrings that display the letter “C” on the right side and “F” on the left side.

Plus, his wry sense of humor is evident when you ask Maggie slightly irreverent questions.

Q: Are you a robot?

A: This is kind of a personal question.

Q: Are you real?

A: This is a subjective question. Can I help you with something?

And finally:

Q: How old are you?

A: A respectable robot never says its age.

You can reach editor Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or [email protected] On Twitter @BillSwindell.