The Digital Lending Mindset

Universal Lending Home Loans has always been about relationships. This highly successful mortgage lender was founded in 1981 by Peter Lansing, a person who built his business by working eyeball-to-eyeball with his customers. For this lender, everything is about personal interaction and trust. As the smartphone became ubiquitous and consumers began demanding more convenient ways to do everything from buying a shirt to applying for a home mortgage, Universal leaders began to look at digital options.


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“Our challenge was finding a way to continue to be a high-touch, self-sourcing mortgage company that is relationship-based, not transaction-based, and still provide the digital options customers want,” explained T. J. Kennedy, executive vice president of production for Universal Lending Home Loans. “How could we make borrowers’ lives easier with technology, yet developand maintain those personal relationships? That was the balancing act.”

The first step, back in the mid-2000s, was creating personal web sites for each of Universal’s loan officers. Initially, borrowers could fill out a short-form application, which evolved, over time, into a full 1003, which uploaded into the company’s point-of-sale software. The borrower still met face-to-face with the loan officer. The difference was they could now spend the time building the relationship, not filling out forms.


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“In 2014, we saw the writing on the wall. The world was quickly moving to mobile,” Kennedy said. “So, we knew we needed to get into the game.”

Kennedy and team found a provider that offered a customized mobile application that looked great in the demo and on paper—only to discover, after rollout, that it didn’t live up to all of its promises.


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“The app just wasn’t reliable. It wasn’t consistent with its status updates, which was one of the reasons we launched it in the first place,” Kennedy explained. “People can order a pizza and use an app to see that pizza being made, or order a high-end car and track exactly where it is in the manufacturing process. We wanted to be able to provide that same kind of transparency to our borrowers throughout the loan process. And the app didn’t do that.”

Although Universal’s IT team had spent months on implementation, working with the provider on setup and confirming fields, much of that input didn’t translate over. The promise of real-time wasn’t real-time at all, but hours, sometimes a full day, later. 


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“We gave it a valiant try for almost two years and then realized that the app was hurting us more than it was helping us,” Kennedy said. “So, we started looking at other opportunities.”

Universal’s Manager of Information Technology, Becca Wilson, was the first to discover SimpleNexus at the annual users’ conference for Encompass, the company’s LOS. A little gun-shy from that first attempt at mobile, Wilson and Kennedy watched SimpleNexus for a full year before getting serious about considering it, or any other platform.

“Becca and I did about four, five—maybe six—demos with SimpleNexus over a period of time,” Kennedy said. “We saw how fast it pulled in information, and Becca was happy with the security protocols. But, the thing that really struck us was that every time we met, they had added a feature or improved a function. We saw such an evolution with their product that we were really confident in them. Their roadmap wasn’t just something they talked about; they actually followed through.”

Universal’s leaders were convinced they had found the right mobile platform. They contracted with SimpleNexus in 2017, rolling out the application in October of that year.

The platform’s tight integration with Encompass was a critical element for efficiency gains. But, Wilson and Kennedy knew that creating a true digital mortgage experience necessitated putting as many tools as possible at their loan officers’ fingertips.

The goal: integrate as many supporting technologies as they could.

“One of the first things we did was integrate SimpleNexus with our appraisal team. So, any time there’s an update, new documents added or final inspections completed, these notifications are pushed to our loan officers through SimpleNexus,” Wilson explained.

“That means our loan officers don’t have to wait for an email update or log into the system to see what’s going on. It’s immediate, on their phone.”

The team has also integrated SimpleNexus with Optimal Blue for product and pricing, so loan officers can price loans on the fly, as well as order and view credit, securely, right on their mobile devices.

“From my perspective, the security levels around SimpleNexus are my favorite features,” Wilsonsaid. “Our loan officers can view a borrower’s credit, but that information never downloads to their devices. They can’t take a screenshot, or use the phone’s camera to capture it, so, that information stays secure.”

Universal has great customer retention, but not every customer always comes back. To give its loan officers a real advantage, Universal asked SimpleNexus and Advantage Credit to work together on an integration that would give LOs a digital heads-up in time to reclaim potentially lost business.

“Essentially, Advantage Credit notifies us if a past client has a mortgage credit report pulled by another firm,” Kennedy explained. “With the integration, when that happens, the loan officer gets a push notification that says, ‘A mortgage credit report was pulled, so you may want to reach out to your client and try to win back the business.’ Sometimes, a phone call, at the right time, makes all the difference.”

By the time Universal rolled out SimpleNexus, which the company brands as ULConnect, its loan officers were more than ready to run with it.

“Enough time had passed, and there was enough pent-up demand for digital that our loan officers didn’t hesitate to jump in,” Kennedy said. “Honestly, SimpleNexus really sells itself, and it’s definitely not difficult to explain. You can have it on your phone, show it to your real estate agents, invite them to be your partners and co-brand it for them.”

The ability to customize the application also adds to its appeal.

“ULConnect is totally branded with our name, our logo and our colors,” Kennedy said. “SimpleNexus does a great job of making it look like we built it from scratch, which makes us stand out a little more with our partners, as well.”

Looking at the numbers, Universal’s loan officers have not only adopted the platform, but are using it—particularly when you segregate the firm’s top performers. The ones who are selling the most are the ones who are using the application the most.

Sixty-six of Universal’s producing loan officers have shared ULConnect/SimpleNexus three or more times each, with the 27 of those sharing the app more than 50 times each. Universal’s top loan officer has personally shared the application a whopping 231 times.

Each of the top 20 highest producing loan officers has activated 10 or more referral partners, with the top five LOs activating double that number or higher.

Clearly, borrowers are embracing the anytime, anywhere convenience of ULConnect/SimpleNexus, as well. Seventy-eight loan officers have received two or more new loan applications through the mobile app, with that number jumping to 40 or more for the top four LOs.

Borrowers have uploaded thousands of loan documents using the application, as well.

“We use a company by the name of Stratmor Group to conduct our post-close Mortgage

Satisfaction survey,” Kennedy said. “We now have a 97 percent approval rating of our loan officers for customer satisfaction, the highest in the country. That rating has gone up since we brought on SimpleNexus and the other combined tools.”

Operationally, the organization has seen the impact, as well.

“SimpleNexus has definitely streamlined our operation. Processors can request documents on the fly, through the app, and receive them. There’s much less, ‘Alright, loan officer, you’re going to have to go get this paperwork so we can get it into the system,’” Wilson explained. “It’s a straight path from the app to Encompass.”

No question, Universal Lending Home Loans has catapulted itself into a digital lending leader, placing integrated mobile tools at its loan officers’ fingertips to help them build Realtor relationships and wow prospective clients.

What advice would this progressive lender give to those just starting their digital journeys?

“When you’re looking at digital technology, do your due diligence. Make sure you’re evaluating at least three different vendors. Make sure what they have works, that it is secure and actually fits your needs,” Wilson said. “Definitely bring in other people so it’s not one person or one department decision. The sales team is going to approach the vetting differently than IT or operations. The choice impacts all of those.” Finally, make sure your solutions and your own organization are constantly evolving. Because the world—particularly the world of mortgage lending—is fundamentally changing.

“These are really just the first steps. The industry is heading toward a fully digital process from start to finish, where borrower documents are replaced by financial information downloaded directly from the bank repository and electronic W2s from employees; and e-signatures and digital notaries replace the traditional closing process,” Kennedy said. “The companies that will succeed as the industry evolves are the ones who are positioning their organizations as digital lenders today. If you’re not taking action, you’re going to be left behind.”

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