Payments Leader

Time for a Smart EBT Upgrade to Improve the User Experience (UX) By David Johnson

July 10, 2018

David Johnson, Senior Vice President, Emerging Commerce Products

All aspects of the financial world – from international cross-border payments to the distribution of federal benefits to low-income families – are digitizing. That latter group is grossly underserved, however. Despite representing as many as one in six people in some states, according to the USDA, benefit recipients receive very little in terms of user experience.

A Costly Perception Problem

The government has introduced a number of programs that distribute funds through Electronic Benefits Transfer cards (EBT) that provide a federally-funded payment option offered at participating stores. Food stamps are now received through the SNAP scheme (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) with the goal to help recipients maintain healthy diets by making relatively expensive items like fresh fruits and vegetables accessible to those with low incomes.

EBT cardholders are not a unique user base, they are simply consumers needing assistance and struggling to make ends meet. They have jobs, they own smartphones and they are very active consumers. Those other relationships have given them the same expectations as other consumers: the experience can be customized to their needs and accessible when and how they want.

Such support is lacking when it comes to EBT, meaning cardholders spend too much time with a card call center when they need assistance. Typically, EBT users are looking to check their current balance or know when their card balance will be replenished. Each inquiry usually means waiting to be connected to the call center. Meanwhile, the calls also impact the bottom line for providers because margins are thin and each call could potentially have been reinvested in the service.

There must be a better way to interact with EBT customers to avoid the frustrations of call center waiting lines, and a way to gain the benefits that conventional prepaid cardholders routinely receive.

There’s an App for It

Back in the day, the call center representative was the only way to get an accurate picture on balance, history or when a deposit arrives. Now, most SNAP and WIC beneficiaries have smartphones, so it makes sense to offer more compelling management capabilities through a simple EBT smartphone app. As in other sectors, self-help is the most efficient and most rewarding way to get the information you need. It is a simple and clean method for getting data 24/7, allows in-app messaging and smart notifications (personalized by the user), at any time, from anywhere.

Beyond simply requesting basic information, smart EBT apps can become a mobile help desk by using chatbots that bypass lengthy and expensive call center inquiries. This emerging technology, along with machine learning and AI-techniques, are increasingly affordable and are a great added service to help consumers get the answers now. Furthermore, these technologies can learn from historical behavior and proactively anticipate needs on a personal level.

Helping EBT Dollars Go Further

If we aim to realign EBT cardholders with traditional prepaid users, then there are additional services that drive more self-help and ultimately contribute to getting EBT cardholders off government benefits and ease into the more traditional financial mainstream. A familiar concept on conventional banking products is the use of loyalty schemes and vouchers or coupons that encourage reuse while giving users beneficial deals and discounts. There is no reason this would not also work in the EBT ecosystem.

Given the large customer base (up to 17 percent of the population in some states), EBT cardholders are an attractive demographic that is highly receptive to offers and savings. In order to encourage good, prudent use of EBT benefits, in-app special offers, vouchers or discounts on selected products, the cardholders can reap benefits and become increasingly engaged with a wider EBT service level. By cooperating with retailers’ marketing campaigns for such items as diapers or basic foodstuffs, EBT programs could provide money-saving offers on staple goods directly to the EBT smartphone app. Savings could even apply at the checkout, allowing for immediate use and instant saving. Retailers benefit by moving more stock and having the opportunity to reach a wider market for a relatively low cost.

Steppingstone to Financial Inclusion

A well-designed EBT service encourages prudent spending, but can also drive users toward the financial mainstream. And built-in loyalty schemes and special offers that reward prudent and regular use encourage this transition. EBT could also add gamification capabilities whereby users earn more benefits and savings for good behavior or for viewing educational content.
It’s time to provide EBT users a better overall financial experience!


David Johnson

Senior Vice President, Emerging Commerce Products

DJ is the Product Division Lead over Loyalty, Prepaid, EBT – Government and Merchant Products. DJ joined FIS in 2007 and has over 20 years of payment industry experience with roles in product development, strategy, consulting and business development. Before FIS, DJ managed Online Banking and Bill Pay for a Top 15 US bank. DJ earned his MBA from Emory University and a degree in Finance from the University of Florida.