For Some, Word of Mouth Just Isn't What It Used to Be

Word of mouth, it has long been said, is the most powerful form of advertising. Indeed, credit unions have long claimed that they make up in word of mouth what they lack in advertising and marketing budgets, though it's a safe bet most marketing directors would happily take a few more dollars just to be safe.

But word of mouth always had its drawbacks, not the least of which was that even the biggest loudmouth could only extol (or lambaste) a particular business to so many people at a time. No more. Word of mouth is bigger than ever thanks to blogs, Twitter and other e-media.

For the banking industry the combination economic downturn, federal bailouts, behemoth asset sizes and these new e-mouthpieces have not made for a Grand Slam. Stories, anecdotes and even videos of bad experiences abound. A blog search of "bad bank experience" turned up 2.7 million hits last week. "Hate my bank" topped that with three-million. "Hate Bank of America" returned 308,000 hits, including one customer who created "IhateBoA.com," on which video can be found showing a large banner with that same message that he hung on the side of a building, in addition to other complaints.

Don't have time to actively search all of this bank-related angst? No worries; now it can come to you. There are Twitter feeds for anti-BofA messages, as well as "I hate Chase" and other banks, all for those who like to vent - but in 140 characters or fewer.

Many of the stories to be found have to do with fees, and it should be noted that no doubt many of these wounds shared by consumers are self-inflicted. One story that was originally blogged before broader media picked it up had to do with a 50-cent charge assessed a BofA customer to check the balance on his new unemployment benefits debit card. Making two withdrawals on the same day cost him another $1.50. Another woman blogged that the man shouldn't complain; she had paid $6 in fees through a Missouri bank to withdraw $40.

And how are credit unions faring? A search of "hate credit union" returned 201,000 hits, but the first six I read were actually positive accounts. The bigger question: is any of this translating into an inflow of members to credit unions? After all, many of the "I hate my bank" sites and blogs have plenty of anger on display, but little in the way of recommendations (such as moving to a CU). Still, the Ohio league reported recently that for the first time in years that state's credit unions have posted membership growth. And Scotland's media reported that "disillusionment with banks" had led to 36% membership growth in that country.

Maybe someone should blog about it.

  • Speaking of banks (and convenient transitions), I was speaking with a friend who is a small business owner and who tried to open an account with Bank of the West. This is a successful business, mind you, with positive cash flow. But the bank said no deal, unless this person was willing to consolidate all their accounts at the bank, especially any checking accounts. "They said 'If not, we don't want you doing any business with us,' " this person related.
  • Meanwhile, in other news, literally, credit unions have been the subject of some double-take headlines in recent months. Among them:
    • "Empire draw first blood in Nevis Credit Union Bonzo," a (St. Kitt's newspaper's report on a cricket match).
    • From the Ballard News Tribune, "Cheap clothes and credit union coming to Market Street."
    • From a newspaper in Ghana, "Credit unions urged to appoint competent people."
  • The Pennsylvania Credit Union Association recently saluted a CU we'll officially nominate (with pride) for Cheapskate of the Year. Wheatland FCU in Lancaster, Penn., spent less than ten bucks on its recent annual meeting. The room was free at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce; beverages were donated by a SEG; refreshments were sent from Cabot Cheese, give-aways were the credit union's season tickets for the Lancaster Barnstormers. For less than $10, WFCU purchased 12 bottles of water, two boxes of crackers, grapes, and napkins.

    No word on whether regulators were still still unhappy with the frivolous expense.

  • A Credit Union Journal reporter working on a fraud-related story was given plenty of information by a CU that was the victim of a scam. But when the reporter asked for the CU's asset size, the CU exec clammed up, saying it was not the CU's practice to divulge such information.
  • Finally, we began with signs of the time, we close with signs of the times. There must be something about economic downturns. The Depression gave us Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly.

    Not to be outdone, apparently, as the current recession has gotten deeper over the past year, Credit Union Journal has included reports of the "Man Hands Bandit" (because "he" wore a dress and wig yet had large hands, and not because he was a Seinfeld fan); the "Pepper Spray Bandit," (who used the spray on victims); the "Crash Dummy Bandit" (due to his appearance); the "Bad Hair Day Bandit" (again for a disguise involving wild wigs); the "Benjamins Bandit" (for his fondness for $100 bills); and the "Dracula Bandit" (for his costume and not a pattern of nighttime robberies).

    Journal reports have also included the "Neckbrace Bandit," the "Sleeves Bandit," and the "Mummy Bandit." Nearly all have something in common beyond a nickname; they're currently convicted and incarcerated.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.