PLYMOUTH, Mich.-Understanding that employees convey the CU brand as well or better than paid advertising has helped TruStone Financial CU successfully launch its new image.

TruStone changed its name from Teacher FCU in June 2009, and moved to a retail approach to branch business. The $650-million credit union set branch performance objectives that were tested shortly after its new image was introduced to the community, and surpassed both, according to Lisa Palma, VP member services. "We hoped to achieve an overall performance score of 88% and a satisfaction score of 8.8 (1-10 scale). We reached 91.45% and 9.28, respectively."

The scores came from questionnaires completed by members that addressed how well employees performed and how satisfied they were with their latest credit union experience. Palma said the scores are a direct result of the extensive investment in employee training that began in January of 2009 and lead up to the launch of the new identity.

It was a three-pronged educational strategy, said Palma of the training that was directed by the St. Louis-based NewGround. Phase one made the staff of 170 more comfortable building rapport with members. Financial education-seen critically important at a time when staff often have tough conversations with members-was the second step. "The third element was applying what they learned in our new retail environment," explained Palma, noting that small prototypes of the new retail settings were built for training purposes.

Branches were redesigned to allow staff to engage with members, Palma said. "The old way is you have employees stand behind a workstation that's between them and members, and you have offices that members approach. In our redesigned branches, members are greeted as soon as they walk in the door, personal bankers actually start their interaction in the reception area, and 'teller pods' replace the teller counter and our staff work side by side with members."

Tellers are trained to pivot the PC screen toward members so they can view the transaction being conducted by the employee. "Engagement rooms" designed to "feel like home" allow staff to sit down with members to review their finances. "We're trying to achieve the same feeling in the branch as members have doing their finances at the kitchen table," Palma said.

The most difficult aspect of the training was getting employees comfortable moving out from behind the desk or teller line, acknowledged Palma.

The results showed the investment in employee training was worthwhile, and Palma said it was handled cost-effectively. Financial education classes were held by two local college professors, while the majority of the rapport-building training was conducted by staff trained by NewGround. And a great deal of the education was handled through the credit union's new "book club." Employees were given required reading and reviewed the books during 15-minute sessions at department meetings.

TFCU has even created "financial libraries," with a fireplaces, Palma shared. "We encourage staff to read books on the shelves and recommend them to members, who use the library as well."

Palma the credit union learned that spreading training over a longer period of time was effective. "It was a lot," Palma said. "We took employees away from their jobs for days. But if you break the education into bite-sized chunks, it is much more digestible by staff."

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