There are two things that really bother me about the credit union industry. The first is the overuse of acronyms in everyday member communications (example: “The credit union doesn’t offer brokerage services, but I can send you to our CUSO.” – like your member has any idea what that means.) The other is much more complex yet tied to the “credit union difference” of being positioned as an advocate. Simply put, advocacy needs to be demonstrated and made more relevant. It’s preached frequently, but it often falls flat.
When a credit union or bank states that they want to be a financial advocate, a bold promise is being made. It’s a lofty promise, but frankly I feel it falls on deaf ears. Why? Because the words are irrelevant without action and there may be low expectation by the member. Do members expect you to be their “partner” or “advocate”? I believe they simply bank (this is not a bad word) with you because they need a checking account or car loan and, for whatever reason, you are conveniently located near them. More many people, if not most, banking is a chore and nothing more.
This being said, I really do like the concept of advocacy in financial services. Let’s face it; the average American is woefully ill prepared for their financial future and worried about how to make ends meet. I think credit unions (and smart community banks) can be advocates of those they serve, but it means doing something, not simply saying something. So how do you, the average credit union manager, bring advocacy to life? Here are 10 simple ideas, in no particular order, that you can put to use today:
- Re-think the newsletter. Does it talk about you and your commoditized products, or does it cover topics like financial wellness? Start providing content that people can put to use. Offer retirement advice, partner with the local Chamber and provide an economic report, share example of how people saved money using your products or services.
- Address the issue of debt more aggressively. Superior Choice Credit Union created the Great Debt Pay Down, a program open to anyone in their community who wanted 2012 to be the year to reduce their debt and improve their financial well-being. Many say the next bubble is student debt. Are you addressing it?
- Leverage the tax year. Every year we are faced with the realities of tax season. Taxes are a significant pain point for consumers. Offering free or discounted Turbo Tax is simply not enough, and everyone else is doing it. Why not offer a series of tax planning workshops that cover changes in tax codes?
- Get into the schools. Kids are not learning enough about financial management. Work with your Board of Education to provide a curriculum or a workshop. Can’t pull this off due to limited resources? Your league may be able to help. In Michigan, the league has created the Financial Education Council “who work to expand credit union commitment to financial literacy and education by assisting credit unions with classroom presentations, student branching, credit union youth programs and adult financial education.”
- Partner with the local media. Community newspapers are always looking for good content. Partner with them to create a monthly column that focuses on timely money management advice. You’ll get the by-line and will be showcasing your advocacy.
- Evaluate your onboarding solution. Note that I referred to this as a solution and not as a process. Through the initial onboarding, you should be positioning the credit union as a solution provider, not simply cross-selling more product. To do so you need to better understand why the member came to you. Do you ever ask a new member why they decided to bank with your credit union? Your onboarding solution should affirm the new members decision to “bank” with you. Tiny $29 million Daden Employees Credit Union took the proactive approach of developing an onboarding video, that can be used to target Darden employees at opportune times (new employee orientations, general manager meetings) yet the content can also be used with new members, reiterating why “Darden is a special place to be.”
- Audit your communications. Many credit unions toss around the term advocacy or advocate with great abandon. Every time you use these terms, in print, in person, on the web or on the phone, make sure you back it up with an example. What do you do that makes you an advocate? Consistency in message drives the perception of credibility, quality and value. Remember, an advocate is “a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.”
- Keep relevant, be timely. Changes in the tax code, the uncertainty of healthcare reform and the impacts of our current political standoffs, are daily news stories and top of mind of your members. These events all have a financial impact on your members.
- Offer tools that support financial wellness. Your members want to have more financial control. Help them keep their New Year resolutions of better managing money. We all want to know what we have, where it’s going and have a plan to better manage our money.
- Review your brand. Move your brand promise from purely marketing communications to a tangible attribute delivered as part of the member experience. One of my favorite taglines for a credit union came from Department of Commerce FCU. “Live Well. Below Your Means.” is brought to life in their member interactions and even a monthly column their CEO writes for the member newsletter.
Let’s try to define this industry through actions and not just words. Every credit union and trade association can do a better job of clearing up and better defining the cause.