Who would have thought that a high-tech company started by a hippie-esque guy who knew no better than to rip off the Beatles' trademark, or a company started by youngsters who couldn't even spell "googol" right, would, in a few years, present a competitive threat to credit unions and banks?

Not that Apple and Google are the only new threats on the financial services front. They're just among the most well-known to consumers. Credit union leaders don't need reminding that the digital revolution has made possible a host of other digital payment types and enabled the launch of dozens of non-traditional providers, from Alipay to Xsolla.

It's no wonder then that credit unions, banks, billers, and merchants are reevaluating their payments portfolios, infrastructures, rewards programs, and strategies. Those that emerge strong will be the ones that provide a singular, integrated, and customized payments experience.

I didn't use the word experience by accident. In 1943, Abraham Maslow pointed out that people aren't happy for long once their basic needs are met. Rather, that is when they begin holding out for wants. This applies in a big way to financial services. Once people have what they need-correctly executed transactions-what they want is a relevant, easy-to-use, enjoyable experience.

Don't get me wrong. Functionality matters. But once transactions are going through quickly and accurately, you have met the equivalent of only the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy. Functionality becomes a given, and member wants kick in. Fail to fill the wants, and an array of competitors stand at the ready to lure away your members.

Technological solutions and a great user interface needn't be at odds. This became increasingly clear to me as work proceeded on an integrated one-stop user experience for bill pay, P2P, and account-to-account transfers for financial institutions. Here are some insights I have gained from that process for building a payments strategy sure to win points from Maslow:

It has to work. I covered that above, but it bears repeating. But remember, this is a need. Next come the wants.

It's still a relationship business. In financial services, you differentiate with branding. Make your system reflect who you are and what you stand for.

Make it intuitive. It's fine if the steps in a digital transaction make sense only to programmers-provided your members are all programmers. Otherwise, design transactions should proceed the way the average member would assume they should.

Make chat and voice options easily accessible. Once a member decides that live interaction is needed, assume that frustration is afoot. You will only add to it if the member must dig to find out how to connect. Make less-costly DIY options readily available, but make live interaction equally so. Many sites proactively pop up a help window after long pauses or repeated, unsuccessful transactions. Great!

Make live interaction a pleasure. Hire empathetic, informed, capable, likable people. And empower them.

Wait time is part of your brand. Do not economize to the point that members grow old waiting for attention from too-few people working at the help desk.

Embrace incentives. Your members are people, and people take action most promptly when you dangle a compelling carrot. Incentives have proven most effective with people of higher income and education.

Add useful, beyond-banking extras. Some financial institutions have made local weather information a feature of their payment systems. Why? They found out that people often consult weather apps. Think about what you might add, outside of the usual array, to make your interface more useful to members and bring them back more
often.

Smoothly working payments systems are a must, but do not stop there. There is no reason to lapse into mere utility status. Provide an experience that no member would want to give up by going to a competitor.

Matt Wilcox is senior vice president, marketing strategy and innovation at Fiserv.