T40B Lindsay Thomas to Credit Unions: Don't Assume
It wasn't until Lindsay Thomas started working at a credit union that she realized what a bad job the industry was doing in terms of sharing what it has to offer.
As a teenager CU Times’ latest Trailblazer 40 Below, fueled by anger and frustration with her bank, made the switch to a local credit union. But she didn't really grasp the credit union difference until she had the opportunity to fill a newly created marketing position there the summer before she graduated from college.
“It's funny, when I signed up for my account at 18 years old, I was given an ATM card instead of a debit card and never questioned it. I didn't even know our credit union offered online banking until I started working there,” Thomas, the marketing manager at the $575 million Honor Credit Union in St. Joseph, Mich., said.
Credit unions can't afford to make any assumptions when it comes to reaching younger members.
“While there is an awareness issue, part of the problem is also overcoming the intimidation factor of dealing with a financial institution,” Thomas suggested. “So, it's more than just communicating with the younger generation about our service and convenience, but also creating an environment where they feel comfortable enough to ask questions and trust.”
Thomas admitted it's still a work in progress at Honor CU, which despite being community based, has stayed true to its educator roots.
“Each credit union has to decide who it's trying to reach and how to best serve instead of the knee-jerk tendency to try to be everything to everyone,” she explained. “We actually try not to be like everyone else. The entire industry got its start to serve certain groups. Why not have a targeted focus?”
Honing in on schools, for example, has gone beyond just doing good in the communities served but also helped Honor connect with parents, students, administrative staff and teachers in an authentic way.
Every year the credit union offers 20 $100 awards to school districts based on applicants’ responses to how they use the funds to benefit students. In its fifth year, the Honor Awards recognize ideas both big and small, from buying a rug for reading time in a kindergarten classroom to securing technology for high schools.
“Everyone knows with ever-tightening budgets teachers can use all the support they can get,” Thomas said. “We still value that partnership we were founded on. Education is the lifeblood of the community, and we’re going to continue to be there to give back.”
Earlier this year, the credit union received an honorable mention from the Michigan Credit Union League for the Dora Maxwell Social Responsibility Community Service Award in recognition of the creation of its charity fund, Powered By Honor.
Managed by a volunteer board of directors comprising credit union team members, Powered By Honor is funded largely through the donations of Honor employees and has been charged with enhancing the lives of individuals in the communities served.
In terms of brand awareness, much progress has been made as search engine marketing, search engine optimization, social media and retargeting have become marketing staples that complements Honor's community involvement efforts.
“It's about getting a better understanding of the members your credit union is relevant to, serving them well and finding more of those people. That's how we compete,” Thomas said. “Even the largest credit union is small compared to Wal-Mart. We, as credit unions, need to find our niche. We can either go after the same people or let Wal-Mart serve those and we’ll serve our niche differently.”
In many ways, it's a matter of quality over quantity, she added.
“How are we making sure we’re really focused on and addressing our members’ needs,” Thomas asked. “Figuring out how to meet the needs of members using every avenue and department available to make it happen –that's innovation. It's not always groundbreaking, high-tech gadgets but something that is relevant and resonates with members.”
For example, Thomas helped breathe new life into Honor's checking account by creating a high interest, rewards-based account that has fueled much of the credit union's growth. Rolled out last year, the Benefits Checking account rewards members who have monthly direct deposits and make 12 or more debit card transactions a month, with a 5% annual yield up to $5,000.
“I believe in being over prepared but then going with the flow,” Thomas joked. “You research, plan, but you can't control reactions. Whether something goes well or there's a learning opportunity, we’re constantly reviewing what we could have done differently and how we can improve. I’m lucky to have such a great team that's all in and marketing has support across the entire organization. “
With the shift in culture to more of a retail sales environment, that dissatisfaction with the status quo has also translated to recruitment and talent development. Never one to be limited by a title or job description, Thomas has focused on hiring for potential and passion more than just skill sets.
“Sometimes you have to look beyond experience or education in an exact field. Whether it's in marketing, the branch or the back office, you want people who have the right personality and attitude, who are driven and will find a way to make something work,” Thomas said.
“You then have to give people the chance and freedom to try,” she added. “We hired them for their perspective and strengths, we have to trust that the team will get the job done one way or another and everything else is a learning opportunity.”