I don’t mind pointing fingers. I was flying back from a conference last month and, while waiting for my connection in Charlotte, stepped in to Phillips Seafood to grab a late bite to eat. I was two bites into my crab cakes when one of their employees shouted out, “Yee haw! Last call!” A murmur of affirmation rolled through the staff. It was near closing time. The only problem was that the restaurant was full of paying customers, most still eating and some still ordering. In this post I will explore that moment and in the process illustrate the precarious position any credit union holding on to “service” as a brand value proposition faces any time an employee interacts with a member.
In my travels I have heard all of these phrases used to define “service” at a given credit union:
“Members are greeted by name and with a smile”;
“We go the extra mile”;
“We really help our members”;
“We make our members’ lives better.”
… And so on.
While these definitions of service are much better than “we treat our members with disdain,” or “we can’t wait until you leave so we can leave,” each contributes to a particular problem — a vague and consequently interpretable value proposition. When a credit union executive says “we go the extra mile,” they have a particular understanding of the definitive actions supporting the ideal, but without that detail the consumer is left to determine what such a promise means based on their own interpretation. The end result is that the definition of service is left to the consumer. “We go the extra mile” could mean something very different to each and every member.
Now some would stay that that is okay, that “service” is about fulfilling individual expectations. That belief is only partly true. Service is really about fulfilling individual expectations within a mutually agreed-upon context. No successful brand leaves the definition of a successful encounter with a consumer entirely to consumer definition and interpretation. For example, Southwest Airlines is known for friendly, humorous staff, but both the airline and the customer know that the choice to fly Southwest is most often based on price.
This takes me back to my restaurant experience. Here is what Phillips Seafood says about itself on its website (and on menus, etc.)…
“…serve classic seafood favorites, provide outstanding service, and create a memorable dining experience for our guests.”
If they had stopped with “classic seafood favorites,” then my experience with their restaurant would have met the standard perfectly. First of all, my server provided me with a menu complete with pictures and descriptions of “classic seafood items” so that I was completely clear on what they meant by “classic seafood.” Second, Phillips is known for crab cakes, which is what I ordered, and they were good enough for a weary traveler.
Of course their value proposition does not stop there as it also includes “outstanding service” and a “memorable dining experience.” Unlike classic seafood, however, you get no defined explanation of their meaning. As a customer, you are left to decide on your own what the company means.
MY interpretation is that I will not be treated as an inconvenience to employees, which is what I felt like at that moment. And while the experience was “memorable,” I am guessing it is not what company executives had in mind. Herein lies the problem. What the company had in mind was not clear to every stakeholder in the interaction.
Credit unions banking on “service” to distinguish themselves from other institutions risk engaging members (and potential members) in a similarly vague way. More specifically, if service is not tangible nor defined but must be experienced to understand what it is, members and potential members are left to judge the value of the institution by what is tangible and defined. Namely, locations/delivery channels, products, and price.
This should be a cringeworthy moment for many credit union executives because it means a requirement to complete two difficult tasks. One is to better define service in tangible terms. The other is to ensure the existing delivery channel, product and price tangibles are desirable.
I think the difficulty of the challenge is the reason so many credit unions market a vague “service” value proposition. It seems the easier, safer choice.They don’t have to commit to any real service promise yet can claim to offer consumers something beyond product and price. As competition heats up, however, and as consumers shop for financial institutions in nontraditional ways, the tangibles will matter much more than a vague promise of “better service.” The institution that clearly defines and offers a real service advantage will win every time.