Credit unions are home to thousands of questions. We train our frontline staff to ask questions of our members — “is this a check you were expecting to receive?” “What denominations would you like that in?”
We ask questions of ourselves — “how can we best serve members?” “What’s the risk of this decision?”
Since March of 2020, many of us have gotten much better at asking a whole new set of questions — “how can we deliver these services differently?” “What is in the best interest of our community’s health?”
What we’ve learned in the process is that asking a whole new set of questions can transform how we deliver and structure our products, services, and even workplaces. A few big high-profile examples of what happens when questions aren’t asked are now pointing us to the fact that we can no longer afford to not develop our skill at asking questions.
Credit unions love to say that we’re our member’s financial partners. However, a FICO study in February of this year found something different. When directly asked what’s essential to their financial success — instead of asking what they want from an FI — financial consumers mention their bank or credit union a measly one percent of the time.
It’s showing up with employee retention on the national stage, too, as the letter Apple employees wrote in June of this year shows: of the five formal requests made in the letter, three were pleading to simply be asked more questions. As we work to attract and retain top talent, this is a warning shot across the bow for all organizations.
In short, the questions we do and don’t ask can make or break the service we provide to our communities. For credit unions especially, asking questions more often can help drive forward innovation, collaboration, and trust in a way that big banks simply can’t. Asking questions makes you more liked, more trustworthy, more likely to encourage action, and more successful when trying new things.
So how can you put the power of questions to work in your credit union?
Focus on the questions members are asking
Credit unions tend to excitedly point to the fact that members say they’re looking for low rates on loans and great service, and that those are the things we provide. But the FICO study dug deeper, and uncovered that when you ask a question about a financial institution, people respond with what they’re trained to say – that an FI offers loans, savings, and service.
The credit union promise is something more, though. That economic participation and financial education can work hand-in-hand with cooperation and community. We can shout from the rooftops all we want that we can do what financial consumers want — but the message obviously isn’t getting through. Otherwise, more than one percent of consumers would say their financial institution can be a partner crucial to the future of their financial success.
So how to get that message through to members, and potential members? Start with where they are, and the questions they’re already asking. A member might contact you looking for a personal loan, but the vast majority of them likely didn’t start that journey at your credit union. Instead, they likely start by asking a question like “how can I get a loan for a car?” or “Should I get a loan to go on vacation?” That’s our opportunity to be a partner, rather than just a provider.
By shifting the language we use and the way we communicate about our products and services to member-first and question-first language, rather than solution-first, we also do ourselves the favor of making our content more search-friendly. Every search typed into a browser is, after all, a question, and content that helps answer that question is seen as valuable. A credit union may not become the eHow of finance, but you can still make a big impact.
Create a question-friendly environment for employees
For some people, asking questions comes naturally. We all know someone who fits this mold, always ready with a list of questions at a meeting, and we tend to take their existence as a sign that our teams really do make it safe for people to ask questions.
However, that is rarely the case. We are often trained out of asking questions from a young age, and for individuals in underrepresented groups, this is doubly so. The ability to ask questions, especially in environments where there are power dynamics at play, is a place of privilege and psychological safety. Rather than an occasional statement that questions are welcomed or that leadership has an “open door”, creating a question-friendly environment takes active and intentional steps.
For credit union leaders, this includes steps like:
Reward those who ask questions. Even when a question is asked rhetorically or can’t be answered immediately, make an effort to thank the person for the question. Nothing will shut questions (both now and later) down faster than anger, dismissiveness, or ridicule — so instead, thank them.
Model a question-friendly mindset. Even if you’re the subject matter expert, asking questions can help you uncover context, include team members who may otherwise not be comfortable contributing, and even encourage action from the team. Try starting a meeting with “Ok, what are we each hoping to leave this meeting with?”
If someone asks you questions that are uncomfortable or that you’re not able to answer, respond directly and kindly. For example,. “I appreciate you asking, and that’s not information I can share right now. I can share that…”
Give a variety of ways to respond. Not everyone is comfortable being put on the spot, and not everyone processes immediately. When you’re asking questions, allow for the fact that some people may respond immediately in conversation, others might write a long email later, and some may choose to only give a digital “thumbs up” to someone else’s comment. If it’s possible, create ways for all of these processing styles to be involved in the conversation.
Asking questions, especially if it’s a rusty skill you haven’t practiced in a while, can be challenging. It can be scary to put yourself out there and focus on questions instead of trying to have the answers, but the benefits are worth it.
Your members have questions, and are looking for partners to help them find their answers. Your employees want — and need — to be asked questions, and are willing to leave if you don’t.