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9 For 2009: Methods To Boost Members' Confidence

I recently checked out the home pages of a number of credit unions and local banks and was amazed to find no obvious mention of the current financial crisis.

Here's my question: If you're in the financial services business and you haven't contacted your members directly about the current financial crisis what are you waiting for?

Now is the time when credit unions should aggressively reach out to each and every one of their stakeholders, trumpeting their own stability in the face of the current situation - or describing the steps they have or will take to respond to it.

Those who wait or presume they have the confidence of their members will be woefully sorry. And, if you're thinking that longevity and past stability will guarantee consumer trust, you've been in a coma since July. What can a financial institution do to demonstrate their worthiness?

Here are a few ways to cultivate and stabilize your members' confidence in your institution:

1) Contact every one of your members personally - every one is a stakeholder in your future. Make sure they know about your commitment to their future. Let them know you know they are scared. Tell them you value their trust and outline specifics that will insure the safety of their investment in your CU. Don't overwhelm them with numbers and don't assume they know about the different between banks and credit unions. And give them a person's name and contact information so they can vent their feelings and ask questions.

2) Open up the lines of communications. Set up a dedicated phone number and e-mail address for these concerns. Make a commitment to respond to all phone calls or e-mails within a few hours. If you're worried about a flood of calls or e-mails, set up an automatic responder that, at minimum tells them you've received their message and will get back to them within a specific time. Then deliver on that promise. Be aware that in a time of crisis, every communication touchpoint carries more weight than ever.

3) Talk to everyone in a form that ensures delivery of your message. Do include your website in your communications vehicles, but don't simply rely on e-mail for member communications. Older members consider letters more personal. In addition, phishing scams have make many consumers, old and young, suspicious of e-mails from financial institutions.

4) Create talking points. Develop a limited number of key messages that summarize your CU's stability and approach to risk. These should be simple, easy to remember and responsive to the level of emotional uncertainty consumers are feeling. Craft them carefully with the involvement of your communications staff (and of course the blessings of legal counsel).

And this is very important: make sure your own employees are comfortable with and believe in the truth of these messages. You will be asking them to carry the torch into the public and they need to be fully onboard in order to do that with integrity. Get the messages to all of your staff who deal with members, including tellers, officers, those who answer the phone and top executives. Mobilize your intranet, internal memos and regular training sessions to emphasize message consistency.

We often suggest clients "publish" these talking points on a laminated card that fits into a pocket. Like Starbuck's legendary Green Apron Book (so named because this tiny principle-based tome fits into the pocket of a barista's green apron) it should be accessible to anyone who deals with members.

5) Train, train, train. Everyone who is in a member-facing function must be trained to use the talking points, to recognize a member who needs more support and to know where to send them next. They need to be prepared to deliver the right messages at work, in the supermarket and during a night on the town. If they work for a financial institution, they can expect to be seen as the face of the crisis. Involve and prepare them and you'll be able to mobilize them as community ambassadors.

6) Reach out through your website. Use the interactive nature of your site to establish a two-way conversation with your members. Use it to position your institution as a place to turn for real information. Add a new section to your homepage that links to information sources, both inside and outside your institution. Link it to a page with FAQs about the stability, risk tolerance and how the difference between credit unions and banks makes your institution a safe vessel for their money. Establish a way for visitors to your site to ask questions about the developing crisis. Make sure answers are simple, straight forward and not excessively technical. Add an RSS feed for those who want to be updated with any new materials you add to the site. Allow those with ongoing interest to subscribe to an on-line newsletter from your institution.

7) Establish a member of top management, as a thought-leader. Members are looking for open, informed and confident leaders who are responding openly in the face of this crisis. If you have a president, economist or top manager who is outgoing and comfortable in the spotlight, position him or her as a supplier of clear answers. Offer this individual as a source for columns, opinion pieces, comments on breaking financial news and even speaking engagements that simplify the economic situation as it progresses.

8) Monitor the feedback coming in. Set up a system for regularly monitoring and analyzing member comments on these issues, whether they come by phone, e-mail, through the site or by letters. Listen and learn what's on the mind of your members and design responses that address their concerns.

9) Take advantage of your in-house marketing staff. Mobilize people with a marketing "head" to help develop and deliver messages. Background on your institution's stability, capitalization and prudent growth should obviously come from your financial staff. But, the delivery of these messages is best left to those with an understanding of how your stakeholders need to hear those messages. Work with them to develop advertising and public relations responses that are technically sound, understandable to your members and reflective of your brand.

What this all boils down to is this: No financial institution has been untouched by this crisis of confidence in our economic system. Consumers need assurance that their money is safe. Those throughout the financial services industry must reach out and answer those fears before their customers express them. Those who do will earn the respect, confidence and loyalty of their members-three rare and precious commodities in today's financial market place.

Andrea Obston is president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications, LLC, Bloomfield, Conn.She can be reached at www.aomc.com or 860-243-1447.

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