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The number of outside surveys involving credit unions, either directly or indirectly, is rapidly increasing. It seems that the interest level in dissecting and understanding credit unions and CU member behavioral patterns has never been greater. Let’s look at some recent surveys. Credit unions love the survey of 1,001 consumers done each year by the Gallup organization for the American Banker newspaper (see August 1, 2001 Credit Union Times and last week’s column) to measure consumer attitudes towards financial institutions, mainly credit unions, banks, and thrifts. The reason for the warm and fuzzy feeling is that in every one of their surveys to date, credit unions have achieved significantly higher satisfaction levels than banks and thrifts. Credit unions also always received higher marks in trustworthiness than banks. Until this year. When learning of this, it occurred to me that just maybe something has been overlooked. By some strange coincidence, could there have been fewer CU members in this year’s survey sample? Credit union members have always trusted credit unions far more than banks. Probably still do. Note the key word here: members. Would it be reasonable to conclude that credit union members still rate credit unions number one in trust compared to the average consumer group which would include who knows how many non-CU members? I admit that I may be stretching it a bit to try and make sense out of why banks, with all their bad press over mergers, layoffs, rising profits, escalating executive compensation and perk packages etc. passed up credit unions when it comes to trust. Stretching a bit further, perhaps those consumers surveyed this year no longer make a distinction between banks, thrifts, and CUs? Perhaps it is time for still another survey that would address these questions head on? Turning to other recent surveys, credit unions are leading the pack in areas that you might not expect them to do so. For example, in Forrester Research’s annual survey of 100,000 North American consumers (10,000 surveyed on line), credit unions leave banks, thrifts, and brokerages in the dust. In this survey, “my credit union” is clearly number one in online satisfaction and value, even measured against some of the country’s largest financial institutions. Besides taking pride in such results, there is a message here that credit union members would rather do business with their credit union if, that is, the credit union can keep up with their fast-changing needs. A key question: how do members at your credit union feel about doing transactions online? How can you find out? Another independent consumer survey, this one by Barry Leeds & Associates, Inc., on attitudes towards the Internet, revealed that the average person no longer fears it. In fact, 56% of consumers surveyed rated Internet banking services as “excellent” or “very good” compared to 45% last year, the first year of this particular survey. Over 40% said online banking was more secure than doing business over the phone while 66% indicated that they felt Internet transactions were safe and secure. Again, a question that CU leaders should be asking is, do these numbers reflect similar attitudes at our credit union? Credit unions waiting to stick their toe in Internet waters best hurry before members swim off to a competitor. What else can credit unions learn from outside surveys? For one thing, consumers can’t live without ATMs, even those that impose surcharges. The convenience is just too great to pass up. But they also expect to be using ATMs even more according to a survey by Star Systems, an electronic funds transfer network. Besides the traditional withdrawal of their funds, the survey shows that consumers want ATMs to be able to assist them with balance inquiries, transfers, statements, deposits, and perhaps even serve as a place to pay bills and buy postage stamps. An obvious question for any credit union, but especially those with little or no ATM involvement, would be do our members have these same expectations? How do you know? Surveys can also give a good indication about customer/member attitudes towards something as mundane as a checking account. Is the long-predicted checkless, cashless, society finally on the way? For the first time since 1995, the number of checks processed by the Federal Reserve has decreased. According to an annual Federal Reserves fee survey, even so-called “free” checking is costing more. The minimum balance required for a free checking account and the per check charge in other accounts are rising rapidly. So are penalties for returned checks. Some have concluded that the combination of increased checking costs and the rapid acceptance of online bill paying, could finally signal a decrease in traditional checking account transactions. Credit unions need to know much more about their members’ usage of checking accounts. What all this leads up to is the fact that many credit unions may be flying somewhat blind in areas like those mentioned above or similar areas. Many credit unions regularly take the pulse of their own membership to gain important decision-making data. Many don’t. While your credit union’s members may be included in many broad based surveys like those cited, there comes a time when individual credit unions need to take stock exclusively of their own membership. A survey designed specifically for your credit union could provide a treasure trove of important facts and figures if done right. With change coming fast and furious, the more decision-makers know about the credit union’s members, the better they can serve those members. Being done right includes using an independent outside research/survey firm with a proven track record with credit unions. It includes coming up with objective questions, not set ups to get the answers a credit union would like to get. It seems to me that any credit union that hasn’t conducted its own membership survey within the last 18 months is operating at a huge competitive disadvantage. Time for another survey? Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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