A vending machine, an ATM, and a real credit union innovation.


The ho-hos cost 85¢. Why? It's always some odd amount at the vending machine. More than normal pocket change but less than full bills. I think vending machine price setters love setting price combinations that always require some round-trip through the office looking for someone to change a $1 bill into nickels, dimes, and quarters. I know deep down they are trying to maximize their profits, but it's annoying none the less.

Instead of making the embarrassing journey though the office looking for change for snacks that I shouldn't even be eating anyway, I'd head down to the ATM for my snack money. I'd have to withdrawal at least $20, since that was the minimum amount. Then, I'd take that crisp, new $20 bill directly to the teller to get change for the vending machine. I had to wait in the teller line first, though. $20 could purchase a few days of snacks, drinks, and the occasional ramen noodle pack from the fancy, rotating vending machine in the middle of the vending area, so it wasn't too big of a deal. It wasn't an everyday adventure, scouring the office for loose change at least.

Only one vending machine sometimes took $5 bills, but not the new ones, and not all the time. It was a game of chance if you had a $5 bill. Either way, you might get some Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, or you'd get a pocket full of quarters, or you might even get dimes. It was a game of change roulette; sometimes you'd be a winner and sometimes you'd be a loser. I'd use this machine to get change for the other machines, since they didn't have the upgraded bill acceptors. There were five machines in total, but, at least the coffee machine was free.

One day, during a meeting, we were discussing innovation. What could we do that would be innovative, that other credit unions didn't do? How could we set ourselves apart from the competition? How could we help our members and help the credit union at the same time?

My suggestion was off the cuff. It was unplanned and made as a semi-joke. I suggested that the ATMs dispense $1 bills. Not only that, but you should be able to select your mix of bills. It was a selfish request, I'll admit. I wanted an easier way to get change for the vending machines. I didn't think it would be a real innovation but it did solve an issue, at least one that I had. I didn't think anyone would take it seriously.

To my surprise, the idea was well received. We talked about how it could be helpful for people to get the mix of bills they wanted and not just $20 bills. "Give the members a choice!", someone screamed from the back row (not really). We also lowered the minimum withdrawal amount to $5 because that could be useful for people that didn't keep much money in their accounts.

Sometimes you'd see an ATM filled with lower bill denominations, but never in a bank. They were always in gas stations or party stores (convenience stores for non-Michiganders). Fancier machines did have a mix of bills but you could never select which bills you wanted back, it was always up to the machine to give you the mix that it wanted. You could try withdrawing in increasing amounts to determine the ATM's dispensing formula, but who has the time–or money–for that.

ATM software didn't come with options like bill mix selection so we had to create our own. We couldn't create it however, we needed someone else to bring our idea to life. ATM software is complicated and if you get it wrong you could give out lots of free cash, which I'm sure the members would like, but not the credit union. With the help of Interpro, a local Michigan company, we converted all of our machines to use the custom bill mix software.

The members were delighted with the new bill mix feature. The people that fill the machines, not so much. It wasn't that bad though. Instead of filling the machine to the brim with $20 bills, they'd have to fill each cassette with denominations of $50, $20, $5, and $1 bills. The ATMs had to be filled a bit more often but not by much. You did, however, have to be sure you put the correct cassette in the matching slot. The ATM was not a bill reader. If you put the $50 cassette in the $1 slot, it would dispense them as $1 bills, not $50 bills. Thankfully, that never happened.

I'm still a member at the credit union and sometimes I stop in to get a mix of bills. I usually grab $100 in $1 bills and a few $5's, so it looks like I have a stack of money. It always raises eyebrows at the register when I peel off twenty $1 bills to pay for something. Sometimes they ask what I do for a living. Dancer or vending machine guy is the answer, depending on who's asking and if they look like they can take a joke.

That's how I turned a mild inconvenience into an innovation. Sometimes people confuse complex things with high value and simple things with low value. It just isn't true. The best innovations make complete sense and are obvious in hindsight. The ideas don't have to be complex to be useful. That idea you think isn't good enough? Give it an honest look, it may just be your next innovation.

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