Aug 31, 2018

How Hurricane Harvey led to a banking brainstorm

USAA’s award-winning banking innovation flies above the rest—literally.

The San Antonio, Texas-based financial institution is a co-winner for Innovation in Societal and Community Impact in this year’s BAI Global Innovation Awards, announced in a special webinar last week. 

USAA took home honors for its Aerial Imagery Tool, which allows members to remotely search and view damage to their homes after a disaster, regardless of whether they can return there. It’s a tool that’s not only about customer assistance, but peace of mind as well.

Conny Dorrestijn, founding partner, BankiFi and an Innovation Circle judge representing Europe, was particularly impressed by USAA’s entry. “USAA proved that they’re really using technology to help people faster in a time of need,” she says.

And behind the innovative product you’ll find an innovative process: one that reflects a spirit of positivity and possibility thinking that permeates USAA’s culture.

“Our board of directors, CEO and P&C president all expect us to be innovating constantly,” says Rachel Biel, innovation director at USAA P&C Company. “Innovation starts at the top. And every single employee at USAA is considered to be an innovator.”  

In advance of the Global Innovation Awards presentation at BAI Beacon, which takes place Oct. 9-11 in Orlando, Florida, Biel talked about what innovation has meant not just to the company, but also to its employees, members and the industry as a whole.

BAI: Tell us about your Aerial Imagery Tool. What inspired this? How has it been used and how have you refined it?

Rachel Biel: At USAA, we’re constantly seeking ways to better serve our members, especially when they suffer damage due to a catastrophe. Several members approached our Catastrophe Response Unit in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And we kept hearing the same thing: “We just want to know what happened to our home.” In many cases, we had access to that information due to the imagery we were obtaining from our flyovers to assess damage. Sharing our information and the imagery became an obvious solution for our member concerns.   

Furthermore, the use of this technology allows USAA to inspect damage more quickly, process the data, and get payments to our members in a more efficient way. The use of this technology also makes it safer for USAA employees since it will allow them to use the technology in areas devastated by natural disasters where physical inspection may expose them to physical danger.

BAI:  What drives your quest for innovation at USAA? Is it a desire to be competitive? A desire to meet customer needs? A combination?

Biel: We have it in our DNA as a company. We look at innovation as not just emerging technologies, but also how can we solve business problems that make our processes, smoother, faster and easier for our members. And if we can make things easier and more efficient for our employees, they will inherently provide our members the service they desire and the service they deserve.

BAI: How do you establish and support a company-wide culture of innovation?

Biel: Since every employee at USAA is considered an innovator, innovation is strongly promoted and celebrated—from our town hall meetings to our “innovation front door,” where all employees are encouraged to submit their ideas to make it easier to serve our members.

Additionally, our members expect us to be innovative and they play an active role in what USAA will look like in the future. They submit ideas through social media, or to their claims adjuster of how to make things better. And through our USAA Labs program, members have the option to opt in and actively participate in pilots and programs that allow us to “test and learn” various products, services and processes to see if it is something we want to roll out on a broader scale.

BAI: What would you say are some key challenges in innovating and taking new ideas or applications to market? How have you tackled those?

Biel: First and foremost, it’s innovating on the root cause of problems versus symptoms of problems. Our most successful innovators invest more time up front making sure they solve the right problem. The second challenge is having strong agents of change to embrace and promote the use of your innovation. Having early buy-in and feedback is critical. It doesn’t matter how exciting a solution is if the people that will use it don’t see the value.

BAI will present the 2018 Outstanding Achievement Award Winners as well as the new People's Choice Award at BAI Beacon, taking place Oct. 9-11 in Orlando, Florida. For a complete list of finalists and annoucned winners, click here.


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Craig Guillot is a business writer who specializes in retail and finance.

Lou Carlozo is the managing editor of BAI.


Check out the webinar: The BAI Global Innovation Awards presents: Innovation Without Borders - The 2018 Winners

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