A $2 Idea That Proves To Be Worth A Whole Lot More

Every now and then someone adds his or her two cents to a concept and inadvertently creates what could be a million-dollar idea. The secret is to listen very carefully, because you never know where, when or who is going to give voice to it. Also keep in mind the old saying, "Out of the mouths of babes." (Though in my case it was actually my teenage son.) Some background:

Last year, my credit union, USAlliance, adopted a philosophy that we call "The Shiny Penny Concept." It's a simple idea that should be at the very core of any world-class service organization: Deliver exceptional member value in each and every thing you do. Told you it was simple.

And it's not the big stuff that makes the member take notice; it's the little things like eye contact, saying good morning or even the small member benefits like free monthly credit reports, early direct deposit or virtual safe deposit boxes that individually may not hold significant value (what we term "shiny pennies") but together gather momentum and build into something that has real significance and help set us apart from the pack.


Hearing Voices

Life with the "Shiny Penny Concept" was going well. Our 2012 annual report beautifully portrayed the concept and I was in the midst of collecting as many brand new shiny pennies I could find to decoratively litter around the credit union for our annual meeting as a constant reminder of the "Shiny Penny Concept." That's when I heard it. The voice. "What about the $2 difference?"

The voice belonged to my 18-year-old son, a college freshman, who was calling to task my penny concept. He proceeded to tell me how he loads up on $2 bills (yes, the Treasury still prints them). He uses the money to foster introductions to new people at the coffee shop, fast food joint, school book store and even at parties.

He claims there was always a special reaction from the other party when the bill was handed over. The receiver would make eye contact with him, which translated to a smile and almost always led to a funny conversation (What's this worth? Is it real? Can I swap two singles from the register and keep this one for myself?)

Importantly, this act made him memorable in the other person's eyes. Right now, you're probably thinking what I was thinking at the time; that this ploy is actually a cleverly designed (and highly imaginative) pick-up line to meet attractive cashiers or baristas at the local coffee place (which seems to be at least partially true). But he claimed that the $2 bill would help start any conservation and challenged me to test it. So I did.

And guess what? It really does work and the conversations were engaging, fun and often colorful. It seems the $2 bill really has an almost special quality making it seem worth much more than its face value.

So at our 2012 annual meeting all attendees got a $2 bill upon leaving and were encouraged to try out the "$2 Difference" for themselves. The stories we heard back were heartwarming-a young niece who thought her uncle had given her a million dollars; two strangers simultaneously pulling $2 bills out of their pockets, and just the overall goodwill spread by this seemingly mundane gesture.

Even my wife had her own $2 moment. While paying for her coffee the morning following our annual meeting, cashier commented, "Some guy just paid with a $2 bill. When was the last time you saw one of those?" To which she replied, "Actually, I saw a bunch last night at USAlliance." They shared a laugh with the cashier planning a visit to USAlliance on his lunch break.


Pumping Up The Volume

The Shiny Penny concept had its day in the sun. At USAlliance, we are pumping up the volume by 200% and embracing "The $2 Difference." We give out $2 bills to members in our branches (we've already filled the safes with them); to vendors at business meetings and to new job applicants. We'll encourage them to pass it along to someone else rather than letting it collect dust in some shoe box hidden at the back of a closet.

In turn, they'll do the same and on and on. Conversations will start and do know what will be one of common questions? Where did you get the $2 bill? The word will continue to spread. More and more people will join our CU, open accounts, and take loans, and we'll be on track for exponential growth. A million-member concept with a "$2 Difference" every step of the way.

Like the "Shiny Penny Concept," maybe Bank Transfer Day has run its course and the time has come for credit unions to embrace the "$2 Difference." Just my two cents.

Kris VanBeek is President/CEO of $800 million-asset USAlliance FCU in Rye, N.Y., where he is gaining a local reputation as a $2 bill hoarder.