Collaboration: 3 ways to use credit unions’ enduring superpower to compete, overcome and thrive

There’s been plenty of talk lately about the return to normal and what that looks like for us now and into the future—as consumers, employees, employers, families and communities. As a credit union leader, it’s my job to help make decisions that positively affect our members regardless of what lies ahead.

While I don’t have the benefit of a crystal ball or the power to see the future, I have found, through decades of experience, that collaboration—the oldest and most fundamental credit union value—has always been a reliably powerful tool. In fact, as we move forward and compete against increasingly sophisticated banking alternatives, that old collaborative approach might be credit unions’ enduring superpower for achieving new growth. It may be the supercharge we need to compete, overcome and thrive long-term.

Here are three practical ways that remembering how we started is a smart path to where we want to go.

  • CUSO Collaboration: Power in Numbers

Credit unions were created by individuals coming together to help each other gain access to credit not available to them from traditional banks. The answer was a workplace banking solution. Our movement’s founders collaborated to solve a problem. And it worked. As a result, the credit union movement took off, evolved and flourished.

Operating a credit union today, though, is a very different experience than it was in 1990 when I started my career. We are competing against not only traditional big money centers, but also scrappy, usually well-funded, digital challengers and enormous global brands like Apple, Amazon and even Starbucks. The credit union growth mandate is further complicated by costly compliance and risk management, increasing operating expenses, and the high price of continuous innovation, which is essential to deliver experiences that keep our members loyal. For most credit unions, going it alone is simply not viable.

That’s why Credit Union Service Organizations (CUSOs) are so important right now. CUSOs are next-generation collaboration in the evolution of the credit union movement. They are a valuable approach to improving income, cutting costs, and connecting with the innovation necessary to deliver solutions and experiences our members need and expect. Through CUSO collaboration, credit unions of any size gain operational efficiency and generate more growth opportunities.

The history and experiences of credit unions demonstrate that shared problems lead to shared solutions. The structure, goals and benefits of CUSOs are many and varied. To learn more about diverse and effective CUSO models, I recommend starting with the National Association of Credit Union Service Organizations ( NACUSO) and exploring  its CUSO Analyzer search tool.

  • Turn up Growth by Flipping the Script on Vendor Relationships

For most credit union leaders, collaborating with other trusted credit unions to achieve common objectives is an easy and natural extension of how we operate. However, when it comes to our vendors, we experience—and, frankly, expect—a far less collaborative approach. To thrive in an environment of sky-high member expectations and fierce competition, we must flip the script on our vendor relationships and demand accountability and shared risk.

Vendor accountability within a truly collaborative partnership has a direct, quantifiable effect. To grow, pick partners—not just vendors—that are with you for the long haul with a clear strategy. Choose solutions (and providers) that address today and anticipate tomorrow. Here’s how to ensure accountability for continuous growth through vendor partnerships:

  • Develop clear, mutual goals with benchmarks to measure long-term success based on outcomes, not transactions or products. 
  • Use processes and technologies that empower you to launch and integrate new solutions quickly.
  • Innovate together through relationships built on shared risk, values and outcomes.

This is the approach our team at Inspire used when converting our core system. We were overly dependent on too many vendors using outdated technology and old approaches. With those vendor relationships, we carried all the risk while they enjoyed all the benefits.

We chose our core provider and growth partner, not just another technology vendor. We’re now getting the people, processes and technology we need and are collaborating to achieve outcomes that meet our shared goals. From the beginning, we established formal alignment and joint accountability to Inspire’s long-term growth. As a result, we are positioned to quickly go to market with the dynamic, differentiated solutions that keep members engaged and loyal. 

  • Data: the Member Collaboration Tool

Understanding the articulated and unarticulated needs of members is critical to deepen relationships and uncover new revenue streams for growth. Member data is the essential collaboration tool to do this. Woven together, behavioral and transactional data tell our members’ stories. Understanding these stories empowers us to deliver value through personalized products and services that solve their problems.

We can no longer look at members as homogeneous. We have to focus more deeply and connect emotionally based on their interests, affinities and specific needs. With data and insight, we can get creative and differentiate in a sea of sameness. Data is the voice of the member. Listening to it and responding with valuable solutions members can’t access anywhere else provides a powerful advantage.

At the same time, we must be sensitive to member perceptions of data privacy. I see this issue as another collaborative opportunity. A permission-based approach to collecting and using data fosters partnership. I’ve found when members keep control (by opting in or out) and they understand that the data is used to create value—to deliver the products they want and need—the result is trust, elevated service, deeper relationships and, ultimately, revenue growth.

A Powerful One-Two Punch

Without question, credit unions are facing the most competitive environment in our history. But we can continue to thrive. To catch up and shift our position from defense to offense requires a powerful one-two punch.

When we lean into our most foundational value of collaboration at every level, we can innovate for growth. Done right, this two-step approach of collaboration and innovation will go beyond empowering us to beat our competitors. It’s a unique credit union superpower for confidently prevailing far into the future, regardless of whether that future  is normal or extraordinary.

Jim Merrill

Jim Merrill

Jim Merrill joined Inspire FCU as President/CEO in 2014. Jim is responsible for the overall strategic direction and leadership of the organization. He is a recognized leader in the ... Web: Details