An External Look In, and an Internal Look Out

Bank Transfer Day not withstanding, not all the press for America's financial co-ops has been the kind of coverage you laminate and frame. In fact, because of BTD it could be argued that some media coverage of credit unions has been what might best be called "contrarian reporting," or coverage that seeks to run counter to the editorial tide.

Swimming against that tide was a story that ran in Money Magazine and on CNNMoney.com headlined, "Credit unions' homey image starts to fray." The piece began, "For many years credit unions have enjoyed a reputation as a friendlier alternative to big banks. Look closer and you'll find things aren't so simple." A quote from the Financial Brand's Jeffrey Pilcher hat set the tone for what was to follow: "It's not all rainbows and butterflies at credit unions."

Look, it's far more pleasant to read the positive letters and e-mails from members, but your CU is far better off by paying attention-and responding-to the not-so-pleasant missives. Same holds true here. Instead of rainbows and butterflies, the article suggested the overcast days and bedbugs to be found at CUs include less availability of free checking, more fees (especially at ATMs), better credit card deals for those who don't carry balances and want rewards, a lack of services for affluent consumers, and even failures.

As for the traditional CU pillar, service, the article added, "Credit unions get less friendly. Deals have ebbed at these meccas of great service."

There is truth to some of that and it can hurt to admit it. But recognizing any shortcomings-or even just the first signs any strength is eroding-is the best way to get them addressed.

* Speaking of coming up short in service... To avoid the risk of employees thinking for themselves, many companies have developed scripts for their employees to follow for just about every scenario. We've all heard it before, like kids in a school play, some customer service rep reading obviously rehearsed lines in either a flat monotone or an exaggerated sing-song. But sometimes you can go a wee bit overboard.

I'm writing this while sitting in an airport following an overly apologetic, almost contrite announcement by the gate agent that our flight will no longer board at Gate 31, where we're sitting, and instead "due to mechanical issues" combined with the airline's "primary concern for our safety and comfort," the airline has no choice but to "apologize," as everyone will have to move to another gate. The impression given was that the gate to which we were moving was so far away it practically involved another flight, and my fellow passengers were unplugging phones and computer and packing up carry-ons. And which terminal in a land far, far away were we being moved to? Gate 32. That's right, a gate that was directly across the terminal from us and for all intents and purposes, with the exception of those idiots who feel an uncontrollable urge to rush the door like they're giving away free drinks to the first 25 people on board, we didn't even have to move. But the employee training manual says that when there's a gate change you read from the script, so, you abandon all common sense and read from the script.

* Two credit unions on opposite sides of the country have found a new approach to the kinds of staff competitions typically staged internally-they are challenging each other. As reported in the March 25 issue, Red Canoe CU in Longview, Wash., and Empower FCU in Syracuse, N.Y., are currently in a "coopetition" to see which can save its members the most money on loan refinances. It's a great idea for getting employees engaged.

Since that "coopetition" was announced I've heard from a few people wondering how they might go about contacting other credit unions against whom they might "coopetete." If you're interested, I'm collecting names and will put credit unions in touch with each other and let them work out the details of their own challenges. Just drop me an e-mail.

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