Does Membership Have Its Privileges? The Debate Rages On

It is said that in polite company there are several things you don't bring up at dinner, chiefly politics and religion. If it's a dinner of credit union folks there's a third topic that comes around about as often and dependably as the meter reader that is also supposed to be taboo: "member vs. customer."

As one who enjoys seeing the mashed potatoes being flung across the table as much as the next guy, I always make it a point to bring it up during dinner. But recently I didn't have to, as the debate lit up a listserv I monitor and sometimes participate in more than any other recent topic.

For the record, I remain firmly in the "member" camp. While the doors to credit union membership may indeed be wider than ever, it's precisely because membership restrictions have been loosened that the words "member" and "membership" now have more meaning, not less as some would suggest. The words convey a bond, a sense of community, a stake in the game.

Perhaps most importantly the word "member" provides a point of differentiation at a time when credit unions are moving to community FOMs and are having difficulty differentiating who and what they are. I've heard plenty of discussion and debate about branding; "membership" is the credit union brand.

But here's another aspect of this debate that is often overlooked in arguing over what "member" means to prospects (the "customers" of other institutions). "Membership" may have its greatest value internally with employees, management and the board. The term is a constant reminder of the difference with banks, of why the place is in business in the first place. When you no longer think of yourself as being different, you are no different. And when you are no different, you simply are no more.

Now on to some of the observations made by folks on the listserv:

* What we do is more important than the words etc., I think back to my early days in my credit union in Australia.... Part of my job was to go into bank branches and recruit credit union members. My principal line was to explain that by becoming a credit union member, they were both an owner and a customer. As bank employees they clearly understood how banks treated their owners compared to their customers and the terminology was important to them.

* By just using the term "customers" I think we run the risk of forgetting that members are owners, too. Even now when calling them members, too many credit unions forget the importance of the ownership angle. I find it very depressing when credit union managers and staff tell me that members don't care or understand that they are owners and that all they are interested in is good products and service. If we don't take the time to continually remind our members that they are owners and customers and we refer to them only as customers, why wouldn't they think that way?

* I always feel better when my doctor refers to me as a patient rather than a customer. It might be a misguided feeling, but it at least gives the appearance that my health is a little bit more important than the health of my wallet.

* It makes no sense to get the terminology right but not back it up with actions.

* Words are extremely powerful, as studies have shown and as authors and poets have moved us with them. Disney delights countless "customers" across the globe...They very intentionally and purposefully always use the word "Guest," not customer!

* The only people who ever debate the use of "Member" versus "Customer" is CU staff. Members will know they are members by the way we treat and serve them. If we call them members and give mediocre service, that falls on deaf ears. My journey with the credit union movement began 17 years ago when I first became a member. As a young person the fact that I was an owner and a member of the group is what attracted me to the credit union.

* I finally bowed to the use of "checking" because most people have never heard of a "share draft"; I feel forced to stomach the term "online banking"-too bad there is not another familiar verb that describes the transaction of financial services... But I draw the line at not continuing to use the term "member" if not for any other reason than to continue to demonstrate and point out our uniqueness of ownership and that we are different.

* We are fighting too hard to preserve our uniqueness to say it's OK to muddy the water, to smear the line.

* Each credit union must do what's best for its membership and future growth. This is where the credit union movement must be open to change, be willing to let go of certain standards that may no longer serve a valuable purpose in these difficult and ever changing times."

* Remember that these difficult times include a strong, rich and powerful banking industry that is itching to have our tax-exempt status ripped away. One of their arguments is the refrain, "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck." The more credit unions look, act and talk like banks, the weaker our argument that "we are different" becomes in the eyes of Congress. Member-owners are one of the backbones of the credit union movement. We forget that at our peril.

So what do you think? Take a moment and click on cujournal.com, click on the letters to the editor tab, and tell us if member or customer matters?

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.