Making Remote Connections

For a Texas cooperative with far-flung employees, next-generation videoconferencing is the ultimate training resource.

With so many credit unions today having multicounty or even multistate footprints, the electronic resources required to interview and train remote employees are practically an operational necessity.

And even credit unions with smaller footprints stand to gain from technology that connects their staff to business opportunities and educational resources elsewhere around the nation.

Advancial ($1.2B, Dallas, TX,) is no stranger to long-distance relationships. The cooperative currently has 16 proprietary branches in five states Texas, Alaska, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Jersey as well as 190 employees, more than half of whom work remotely either occasionally or permanently. Even the credit union’s board is dispersed, with roughly half of its members living more than 200 miles away in Houston, TX.

We were formed when two oil and gas companies, Atlantic and Richfield, came together to form ARCO, and wherever that industry went, we went too, says CEO Brent Sheffield. At one point there were 18 different ARCO credit unions, with ours being the largest, and we initially grew by acquiring these smaller regional institutions.

BP’s later acquisition of ARCO had a big impact on the credit union’s charter and triggered a calculated pullback from some states like Colorado in order to focus on the markets and demographics that were a better fit. But the lessons of operating within a diversified, geographically disjointed footprint still remain.

Videoconferencing’s Varied Uses

With Advancial juggling so many individuals in different states at any given time, the shortest distance between these points isn’t actually a straight line. It’s a DSL connection.

Advancial has been a heavy user of teleconferencing technology such as WebEx for more than a decade, even hosting its annual member-facing meeting via this channel.

We have lots of oil and gas engineers as our members, and they may be working in countries like Nigeria, Venezuela, or Russia, so it’s important they have a way to attend, Sheffield says.

But in 2010, the credit union ramped up its capabilities to include not just videoconferencing but also high-resolution screens and the ability to share documents or interact with other employees using virtual, hands-on tools.

The ability to do, rather than just see, has also had a huge impact on what the credit union can accomplish with this technology, says Laurelle Campbell, director of employee development.

For example, we can now train new hires remotely, as the technology allows them to control our desktops and gain firsthand experience working within those systems, she says.

Campbell’s Dallas-based, three-person team handles the vast majority of these training sessions, which can take up to two weeks for member-facing individuals like member service representatives and loan officers. However, the credit union will also rotate in its various subject matter experts for refresher courses and updates on more nuanced areas of the business.

Three Must-Haves For Effective Teleconferencing

Laurelle Campbell, director of employee development for Advancial, explains how to avoid those dreaded Can you hear me now? scenarios.

  1. You’re only as good as your connection, Campbell says, so the most important requirement for teleconferencing is a seamless computer network with plenty of bandwidth and an IT department willing to assist with and support these sessions as needed.
  2. Another must-have is a video monitor large enough to display both the speaker and attendees. For example, if we are training a class, we want those people online to see that everyone is in the same boat, Campbell says.
  3. Campbell’s last requirement is the use of high-quality, echo-canceling microphones. Conversations on a computer speaker can get a little fuzzy, so having that direct connection creates cleaner, more audible conversations, she says.

We don’t really care where you work, but we do want competent people who can match our values. This model has really allowed us to use and deploy our internal resources as needed, Sheffield says.

In an operational capacity, the credit union’s board and leadership often use the interactive technology for their meetings, and the credit union also holds a once-a- month all-employee meeting over this channel for light training, story-sharing, awards, and other team-building exercises.

Even the credit union’s Houston-based investment broker makes good use of the technology as a way to connect with and advise members in various branches in other states.

Cost-Efficient Communication

According to Callahan Associates’ Peer-to-Peer analytics, Advancial’s operating expense ratio as of 4Q 2013 was considerably lower than other comparable peers with between 12 and 20 branches at 2.84% versus an average of 3.19% despite its unique footprint and operational structure.

And videoconferencing alone saved the institution over $30,000 in travel-related costs the first year it was adopted, with closer to $60,000 in savings every year since.

Face-to-face interactions are always best, but there’s a lot of expense getting someone up to Alaska, for example, he explains.

As mobile technology continues to improve, the credit union also sees a lot of potential for more direct member-facing service and support through videoconferencing.

Currently, our technology is not like an email or text that you can initiate, receive, or respond to at any time. You have to plan it out in advance, Sheffield says. But if a member who was having an issue had the ability to call us and initiate a video chat right from a mobile device, that channel would become a lot more valuable for that person.

June 2, 2014

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