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As I was hopping into the passenger seat of our SUV to head off for the annual trek to central New York for Thanksgiving with the in-laws, I banged my head hard on one of those handles that every vehicle has but no one really knows what they’re for. You know, the ones you hang your dry cleaning on. What purpose do these possibly serve unless you have a teenage driver in the house and you desperately cling to them for dear life?They’re irrelevant, so why are they still there? And there’s a cost attached along the line, including production of the handle and the labor to put the useless appendage into the vehicle.Credit unions should look at themselves in this same light, particularly while implementing cost-cutting measures during the current recession. Are there inactive accounts that can be cultivated into active ones or should they be purged? Have some of your products and services reached the end of their practicality and profitability?In order to remain relevant, credit unions must prepare for the future. Look around; banks and financial services companies aren’t your only competitors. I was on a plane recently when a flight attendant came on the intercom to hawk the airline’s credit card. The airlines are diversifying and being proactive in going after your members’ patronage. Credit unions must do the same-not by going into the airline business but you get my point.Credit unions should delve deeper into income and member service alternatives like insurance products. Demand is also increasing for trusted financial services advisers during these turbulent economic times. Members should be able to come into their good old reliable, yet contemporary, credit unions for this service, and they should pay a reasonable fee for it. This avenue pays multiple dividends as it provides greater face time for the credit union with its members and opens up cross-selling opportunities.Credit unions also need to grab technology by the horns to continue leveling the playing field with their larger, better funded competitors. Mobile services are ideal for credit unions. It can be employed in fraud prevention and detection, easily accessed by the busy traveler who needs to know the available balance on a credit card or relied upon by the small business owners as she zip from job site to job site.I’m also still enamored with the idea of remote-deposit capture on the retail side. The technology would not only help reel in business clients, but also, in time, a large cross section of members who would use the service, decreasing lines in the lobby and staff time.Along these lines, a well-designed, dynamic Web site can help strengthen member relations. E-bill payment capability is important; I recently went to make a car payment online through the lender’s Web site-a large regional bank (sorry) that shall remain nameless-and was floored when I discovered it did not have the capability. So what did I do? I logged into my credit union’s Web site to set up an electronic payment and was reminded yet again of why I joined.But there’s a fine line to be walked in diversification of products and services. And Citigroup has crossed it. The company’s grow-grow-grow mentality pushed it over the edge from diversified to unmanageable, and now it’s paying the piper.Taking a good thing too far is a lesson we’ve all learned at one time or another. On that same flight when the credit card was offered, I was flipping through the SkyMall catalogue since I was barred by the FAA from banging away at my laptop. I’ve never really examined it before and was surprised at the range of items that could be bought, from furniture to clothing; the airline, no doubt, was hoping passengers would use their credit card to make purchases from SkyMall. The concept of in-flight shopping is a good way to take advantage of a captive audience with little else to do for a couple of hours. It’s simple and it’s smart. However, the marshmallow gun that touted itself as launching the sugary, gooey confection up to 40 feet and the animatronic Elvis were a bit over the top.And, speaking of going too far, how many of you honestly know what all the buttons on your TV remote do? The engineers just decided to fill up any blank space on the face with whatever crazy options and gizmos they could come up with until most of us are scared of blowing up the idiot box if we stray from the power, channel and volume buttons. Don’t do this to your credit union.So, I guess the lesson would be to innovate and solve problems but keep it simple-like my favorite SkyMall item, the Slanket, which is essentially a blanket with sleeves. You can still reach the overly complicated remote to change the channel, but you don’t have to remove your arms from the warmth of your cocoon. Solve problems without creating more for yourself.–Comments? E-mail [email protected]

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