Expansions, Retention, (Cloudy) Vision, & Push '1' Now

By all rights, judging from some recent headlines, including in The Credit Union Journal, you should be reading this by flashlight, on the floor, perhaps under your desk. You're not alone. Apparently credit unions should be hunkered down inside their offices with the shades pulled and the lights off, with any plans for membership expansion deleted from hard drives, any board presentations run through the shredder.

After all, banks have won some measurable victories, especially against federal credit unions seeking to serve lower-income populations (forget No Child Left Behind, it's No Poor Person Gets Ahead!), and regulators and legislators have gotten cautious.

So times must be tough at the consulting firm run by former NCUA Chairman Dennis Dollar, who championed many FOM expansions during his term in office, right? "We've never been busier," said Kirk Cuevas, a partner in Dollar & Associates who worked with Dollar at NCUA. The litigation and recent NCUA rulings have not "diminished the need for growth and expansion by credit unions. All the options are still there, they just have to make sure the regulatory requirements are being met. There are still quite a few credit unions looking at community charters and we think it remains valuable."

Cuevas, whom I talked to in Toronto during NAFCU's annual conference, made it clear the firm, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., and Washington, doesn't advocate expansion for every credit union. He said they have advised clients in the past not to expand, saying one recent client simply did not have all the components in place that are needed before throwing the doors wide open. "It's not a slam dunk," he observed. "It has to make sense and it has to be a legitimate community. You have to have the ability to serve the expansion, and you have to have a viable business plan."

Overheard during a recent meeting debate by directors over deferred compensation plans for their CEOs, one board member stated flatly, "If you're afraid of losing your CEO, ask yourself, could we get a competent CEO at that salary if he left? In our case, we're paying $350,000 a year and we believe we can. Sometimes the issue is just base compensation."...At that same meeting, in a room of approximately 40 people discussing alternatives to payday lending and what can be done, by a show of hands just two people in the room said they had ever been inside a payday lending operation...Here's another reference you don't often hear at a credit union event: author and consultant Jason Jennings was criticizing the whole idea behind "vision statements" and how they come about during the recent NAFCU meeting, and said, "I can just see Fred (Becker) and his board smoking a big doobie" and creating the NAFCU vision statement.

In all the endless talk of "branding" and the "experience" the member has and, of course, "service," what isn't often mentioned is what happens when the member calls the credit union-as many do. As Paul Grinde of CoVantage Credit Union in Antigo, Wis., remarked to a CUES meeting, "If I call your credit union and it says push 'one' for this and 'two' for that and 'three' for that, how much respect do you have for your members' time? If you put people into Voice Mail Hell, how do you expect them to feel welcome? Twenty-thousand times a month the phone is answered by a person saying, "CoVantage Credit Union," and most times they are not transferred. The person answering the phone can take care of it. I think that's very important in making people feel welcome in your institution."

Within any industry there are encyclopedias full of what is sometimes called "unarticulated knowledge" that never makes its way into Wikipedia or a training manual. Case in point: how to estimate the correct number of T-shirts needed for distribution at a credit union trade show. Marc Paine of Strunk & Associates may be the credit union community's leading authority on this topic. Strunk frequently distributes customized T-shirts from its trade show booth, most recently at a CUES event in San Francisco where it gave away T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the event, a graphic of the Golden Gate bridge, and its company name.

Over the past four years Paine estimates Strunk, which provides courtesy pay services to credit unions, has given away 25,000 T-shirts. "It's something attendees like, it's a nice souvenir and it elevates traffic," Paine explained.

Paine oversees the design of the shirts, which always feature some graphic tied to the locale. Next year, for instance, when CUES takes the same event to the Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas, the shirts may feature the fish or aquariums for which the hotel is known (having stayed at that resort before, my own vote would be for a graphic showing one's wallet sinking like the hotel's namesake). In terms of estimating the number of shirts needed, Paine said he relies on historical demand and his own insights. One lesson he has learned: although the larges and XLs always go fastest, at the Bahamas event there will be even more shirts in larger sizes available, as people like to wear them over swim attire and at the pool or beach.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.