Perhaps Understanding This Target Audience Isn't As Easy As Pie

Can you really understand the plight of the underserved if you are eating a $17 slice of pie?

I had just this conversation with someone recently during CUNA Mutual’s Discovery Conference at the Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla., when this person was sharing how she had ordered some dessert from room service and the tab for the slice of pie was 15 bucks plus a $2 gratuity (at those prices the one that ought to be saying thanks is the hotel, as that works out to about $120 for a whole pie).

The person was wondering aloud whether folks staying in a resort and eating ridiculously overpriced desserts can really take the message seriously when the next day they’re in a session on low-income markets and underserved communities. Credit unions have come a long way from taking the train and splitting a room at the local boarding house for the league annual meeting; despite all the endless talk of “serving the underserved,” have they come so far they simply can’t identify with the guy pulling the night shift to bake that pie?

I’ve heard the same point made about credit union CEOs and board members who are attending the World Council’s Annual Forum this week in Hong Kong. With airfare, registration, hotel, meals and other expenses, that’s at least $5,000 per person to attend (I talked in March to one credit union that is sending three people and which has budgeted $20,000 for the trip). Setting aside the issue of whether these types of trips and expenses should be disclosed to members in the newsletter or online, I’ve had a number of folks question whether such expenditures might not be put to better use helping folks who may have had their job shipped to China, and certainly aren’t ever going to visit there.

I was sharing these observations with a former member of the NCUA board at last week’s NAFCU meeting in San Diego and they answered that credit unions simply have no choice but to understand the underserved, as that’s where their future growth lies if there is to be any.

In other words, they have to put their money where their pie-hole is.

* Was listening to a speaker recently who made an often-used reference to how North Carolina’s State Employees Credit Union hangs a mirror in every branch beneath which are the words, “Meet the owner.” It’s a creative and relatively cheap way to convey the very essence of what makes a credit union a credit union. Afterward I heard someone criticizing the SECU example, saying words to the effect, “That’s easy for them to do, they’re a big credit union.” This is precisely what keeps so many small credit unions small: small thinking. SECU doesn’t do innovative things because it’s big; it got to be big because it does those innovative things.

I heard the same thing earlier this year during Credit Union Journal’s Grow Show after Wendy LaChance of Coast Capital Credit Union discussed the CU’s funny and often sassy online concierge, Julie. “They can do that because they’re big,” the refrain went. No, they can do it because ANYONE can do it; you just have to take the chance. If anything, it should be even easier when you’re smaller and nimbler.

* Speaking of potentially sketchy communities, Sarah Canepa-Bang, president of Financial Service Centers Cooperative (FSCC), acknowledged that while members of CUs that are part of the FSCC Network (as well as CO-OP) can access their funds via the Vcom self-service kiosks at 7-Eleven stores across the country, some credit union execs have expressed reservations about the home of the Slurpee.

“I’ve had some people say ‘I’m not going to send my members into 7-Eleven; have you seen the neighborhood that 7-Eleven is in?’” Canepa-Bang disclosed. “Well, we map where all the credit unions’ members live, and we know where they are. Do you not think if they live within two miles of a 7-Eleven that they don’t know what the neighborhood is like? Members are going to do what they want to do, and we need to let the members make the choice. If they want to use a 7-Eleven, that’s great. They’re going to find it and try it anyway. I remember having this discussion 20 years ago about share drafts and having someone say he didn’t think his members needed share drafts. And I said that my guess was they already have a checking account, just someplace else.”

Canepa-Bang urged credit unions to not let up in seeking to drive innovation and cooperation, calling shared branching the “ultimate contribution” to the latter. With more than 5,000 credit unions branches (including 3,354 in FSCC) as part of shared branching across 48 states, she observed, “We are no longer a unique little idea. We are a bona fide delivery channel.”

Still, Canepa Bang cautioned, “Keep thinking outside the branch. Merchants are going to be promoting contactless payments and it’s going to be out of our hands.”

Further evidence of that relationship building can run amok: Credit Union Journal recently received a press release noting a credit union had “gone love” with a new solution.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com. (c) 2008 The Credit Union Journal and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.cujournal.com http://www.sourcemedia.com