For more than a decade I have worked with credit unions in North America of all sizes and all orientations (community, SEG-based, single sponsor). During our strategic planning sessions, managers and board members alike would extol the “member-centric service focus” as one of the true distinguishing dimensions of a credit union as compared to banks and other financial service institutions.
And for a long time various surveys have underscored this member-centric service with a smile as something credit unions do better than anyone else. The American Banker survey repeatedly put credit unions ahead of the competition.
Yet, in recent years this gap has been closing and both community banks and large banks have been able to improve their score. Perhaps their employees do not smile as enthusiastically as we do, but their staff’s level of expertise often trumps that of the average credit union employee. In addition, larger financial institutions have invested heavily in a combination of advanced technology and marketing sophistication to increase their reach among younger and more mobile customers.
However, while the service gap is shrinking, credit unions today have a unique opportunity to highlight what differentiates them from their competition. As member-owned institutions, they are democratic and fully focused on the well being of the people they serve, both short term and long term. Credit unions are not beholden to the whims of the stock market or the terror of the quarterly analyst’s report. Credit unions 100 years ago and credit unions today, serve to provide affordable financial services in a responsible fashion to all American consumers.
During the recent crisis, credit unions as an industry have stood out as a beacon of prudent stewardship, not lured by the siren songs of easy money through risky enterprises. Derided often as stodgy and boring, it turns out those are the qualities that make for reliable financial services and sound risk management. Most credit unions refused to peddle “liar loans” and other excesses so popular during the recent mortgage madness. Nor did they invest in risky instruments that simply were too good to be true as much as they were impossible to understand. During all this turmoil, credit unions have continued to focus on service, transparency and responsible stewardship and governance.
Now the entire country understands what is meant by “perverse incentives” like paying brokers for origination fees no matter how bad the loan or paying executives vast sums no matter how bad their performance. Now that Wall Street and the “market” are naughty words, at least for a while, and now that the winds of deregulation have turned into a destructive gale few understand and even fewer know how to control, we can be assured that reputation again will matter.
Reputation in the market place for services is an invaluable competitive attribute. In times like these, it signals to dazed and confused consumers that there are still even today institutions that can be trusted like a good neighbor.
However, now more than ever credit unions need to tell the story of how they always focus on the best interests of their members and the community they serve, and how they act in a prudent and ethical fashion, measured by that service and not just the profit it may bring. Through hard work and diligence, credit unions have become and will remain the truly trusted advisers in an industry scattered with the carcasses of companies that have fallen victim to their own hubris, such as Citigroup.
Thus, the stellar performance in a time of unprecedented turmoil needs to be told to the public at large, not only at the local level but especially at the national level. How about a page-wide ad in USA Today simply titled “Credit Unions, No Lies, No Gimmicks!”
Our reputation for consumer-centric service is intact; our commitment to the well being of our members has never been in doubt. Now we need to go out and shout-or at least proclaim if shouting is too radical for your temper-that we are still America’s consumers’ best deal in town.

Franck Schuurmans is director of the nonprofit practice at Decision Strategies International. He can be reached at 608-236-4259 or schuurmans@thinkdsi.com