Lessons to Be Learned from Shift by Consumers

Public apathy toward financials? Not for credit unions.

I heard of a recent blog posting in which the blogger argued - somewhat forcefully, and plenty convincingly - that the biggest enemy faced by credit unions (and banks, for that matter) is apathy by consumers toward financial institutions.

In other words: The only thing consumers really care about is convenience (with maybe a nod to lowest price and highest return). The rest of it - meh, doesn't matter much.

And, because of that apathy, consumers - particularly bank customers - are unlikely to overcome depositors' inertia and "move their money" any time soon.

But I am not so sure. In fact, I wonder if - right now - consumers are becoming less apathetic about credit unions, specifically. And credit union activists can learn a powerful lesson from that change.

Here's why I make that point: Last year, credit unions saw their memberships - in the aggregate - increase at the fastest clip in a decade: 2.3% or thereabouts. That may not seem like much, but it translates into about 1.5 million people.

There's more: Survey after survey, and poll after poll (including CUNA's) show increasing public support for credit unions and their services. That's largely at the expense of public attitudes toward banks, which are heading in the opposite direction.

Consider this: Between the last week of January and just last week, four surveys/polls were released which gauged consumer attitudes toward financial institutions. Here's how things played out:

Week of Jan. 25: The Chicago Booth/Kellogg School "Financial Trust Index" finds that credit unions have a higher approval rating on trust than do banks. As reported in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 28), credit unions had a 58% approval rating, compared with a 31% approval rating of national banks and 53% of local banks. Banks in which the government has a stake were trusted the least, with a 21% approval rating, the report said.

Week of Feb. 1: Forrester Research's annual "Customer Advocacy" rankings placed credit unions well ahead of banks after about 70% of credit union members surveyed told the research group that their financial institution puts their interests first. The closest institution was a financial services company with 64%. According to a report in The New York Times (Feb. 3), a Forrester official attributed credit unions' ranking over banks to credit unions' different operating model: Owned by their members with emphasis on customer service. The bottom seven institutions in this year's rankings were all big banks--Bank of America, Chase, Capital One, TD/Commerce, Fifth Third, Citibank and HSBC.

Week of Feb. 15: Credit unions scored 84-the highest of any financial services industry - on the American Customer Satisfaction Index for 2009, co-sponsored by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. Banks averaged 75. The results, according to The New York Times (Feb. 16) are based on about 80,000 telephone interviews during which interviewees were asked to rank their satisfaction with their financial institution's checking, savings and personal loan accounts; prices; and customer service, among other questions, on a scale of one to 10. According to the Times, the results were then averaged to create an index score for each institution from 0 to 100, with 100 being the highest score. The only others to beat out credit unions (with scores of 85): Breweries, personal care & cleaning products and soft drinks.

And, last but not least: CUNA released its own national poll of 1,000 voters last week, which found that for the first time-given the choice - voters will support credit unions over banks if a disagreement between the two financial institutions breaks out in either the Congress or any of the state legislatures. Further, the survey results showed - for the second straight year - voters view credit unions more favorably than they do banks, and that favorable view of credit unions has not faltered in the past year (even though the "favorable view" of banks has slipped significantly).

Does any of this prove that credit union members are now less apathetic? Maybe not. But it does prove that credit unions are making significant inroads in convincing consumers that they are the better deal, and that they deserve the support of consumers.

Some of that may be evident in the "Move Your Money" campaign sponsored by the Huffington Post website/blog. When first unveiled late last year, it focused entirely on so-called "community banks." But reader outcry soon changed that: More than 2,000 comments were posted, many of them supporting "Move Your Money" to credit unions. In a blog post of my own on Huffington's MYM site, I pointed out millions of consumers had already voted with their feet and moved to credit unions this past year.

That's not apathy - that's grassroots support.

As CUNA's Richard Gose (senior vice president of political affairs) would say, "the environment has never been more complimentary to credit unions."

Credit unions are doing something right, and the public knows it - and seems to be giving their support to credit unions. The question now: Can credit union activists take advantage of this, and demand more support for America's credit unions and their issues? Over this GAC, we will give it our best shot.

Dan Mica is President and CEO of CUNA.