Listen, Don't Cross Sell
Outsiders might wonder how credit unions manage to serve two demanding masters. How can financial cooperatives dedicated to serving their members survive in a competitive culture which requires them to sell a minimum number of products and services?
Easily, responded four leading credit union executives, provided the credit unions make sure they put the needs of their members first.
“You’re quite right to recognize the apparent tension,” said Tony Ward-Smith, a longtime credit union consultant who introduced the concept of rating credit unions by the numbers of products and services their members use.
Ward-Smith, founder of Ward-Smith and Company, a Seattle-based credit union consultancy, uses data generated from NCUA call reports to analyze credit union financial performance, paying attention to the number of accounts and loans per member.
“Credit unions are dedicated to serving their members. They have to be. But they also have to get those members to take out a minimum number of loans to keep their heads above water,” Ward-Smith said. “How they are going to do that is one of the key questions credit unions have to face over the next decade.”
Ward-Smith said the only way credit unions can achieve both goals will be to understand each in terms of the other. Putting member needs first means offering them loans and services which will better their financial lives, Ward-Smith explained, and not letting the credit union's needs or agenda drive the relationship.
And Ward-Smith called it essential credit unions learn how to better do this.
According to NCUA industry data for the end of 2013, only just over 50% of credit union members ended 2013 with at least one loan from their credit union. Only roughly 15% have their credit union's credit card. Only roughly 15% of credit unions have either a new or used car loan.
“Member-centered lending is the opposite of the ‘oh it's June, so let's make sure we get this auto loan promotion up and running,’” Ward-Smith said. “It's about taking time to listen to members, asking questions, zeroing in on both what they say and how they say it to help them communicate what they need. It's about getting to know and love your members.”
Ward-Smith used auto loans as an example. A credit union could use a calendar or quota approach where every person who comes to the teller line in May gets told about or offered an auto loan, he said. But his research has found credit union staff resent this approach and members tend to discount it.
Instead, Ward Smith said, a member-centered approach listens to a member for clues or indications they would benefit from having an existing auto loan refinanced. Or, while looking over a checking account, a customer service representative might notice the member has made a few payments to an auto shop or garage and ask if it might be time for a new car.
“The goal is not to sell the member a car loan,” Ward-Smith said. “The goal is to help members better their lives financially, either from a lower interest rate on an existing auto loan or the purchase of a more reliable car that drains less cash from their monthly budget.”
Sasha Galan, branch manager at the $519 million Generations Community Federal Credit Union in San Antonio, Texas, largely agreed.
Generations Community had two executives who shared the CU Times Trailblazer Lending Executive of the Year Award in 2011. The executives have since left the credit union, but Galan said the credit union retained the emphasis on member service in lending, pointing to its recent experience with home equity loans.
“Now the financial crisis has passed, many of our members are making more money again,” Galan said, “but we discovered many of them are deeper in debt and in fractured, expensive way.”
She noted Generations had found a significant number of its members were carrying credit cards with higher than necessary interest rates as well as other types of expensive loans and they had enough equity in their homes to lower their overall payments.
“You have two or three of these cards with 22% or 24% interest rate and that builds up,” Galan said.
Dona Svehla, SVP at the $1.9 billion Grow Financial Federal Credit Union and Trailblazer Lending Executive of the Year for 2013, said her 170,000-member credit union held a similar attitude to Generations, but added the credit union insisted the entire staff learn it.
“Everyone learns our lending approach and program,” Svehla said, “from the executives down the line. It's an approach that marries strong education in the credit union's loan products with using open-ended questions and improved listening skills to identify what members need.”
Underwriters play a role too, she explained, by reviewing credit reports pulled for underwriting one loan for additional loan opportunities. Loan officers working with members on an auto loan, for example, might be informed the member also has a high-interest credit card the credit union could replace with a lower rate.
Corey Miller, consumer lending manager at the $846 million Northwest Community Credit Union and Trailblazer Lending Executive of the Year for 2014, said his Eugene, Ore., credit union offers loans as part of its broader effort to help members move up financially.
“There really isn't any conflict with cross selling, because we don't see what we do as cross selling,” Miller said. He said Northwest Community works with members to help them make better financial choices and adopt better financial strategies.
“We offer loans, along with savings products and checking accounts as part of our counseling and we help our members understand why certain products can help them meet their goals,” Miller said.
“A lot of the time, a member will ask about whether we have a loan before we have a chance to even present it,” he added.