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In the early months of the financial meltdown, credit unions were being hailed as the silver lining around the dark financial cloud. Credit unions were-or at least seemed to be at the time-largely insulated from the risky investments that plagued other institutions. Credit unions were poised to turn widespread crisis into opportunity.That all changed when the trouble at US Central and WesCorp came to light.Of course, all of this opportunity still exists. What has changed is that some credit unions have become a little reluctant to capitalize on this opportunity. Faced with mounting and uncertain assessments from the NCUA, credit unions of all sizes are trimming their budgets in any way possible. This makes absolute sense-to a point. However, if credit unions allow themselves to become completely paralyzed by budgetary fear, they risk missing this opportunity completely.For example, there’s no doubt in my mind that many credit unions have already greatly cut back on marketing. Credit unions aren’t alone in this thinking. The value of effective marketing is difficult to quickly quantify, so in a down economy, it’s often one of the first things on the chopping block, regardless of industry. That can be a mistake.In an often-cited study of 600 companies completed by McGraw-Hill Research in 1985, organizations that maintained or increased their marketing budgets during the 1981-1982 recession enjoyed post-recession sales on average 256% higher than those that cut back on marketing. Sure, it’s important that credit unions brace for some potentially trying times just ahead. But it’s even more important that they position themselves for success once the economy rebounds.“It’s all about building brand and building loyalty,” said Paul Lucas, a long-time credit union marketing consultant, during a recent conversation. “The smart credit unions realize this is no time to crawl under a rock.” I couldn’t agree more.This brings me to another area of debatable budgetary reductions: technology.As a technologist, one thing that’s always impressed me about the credit union movement as a whole is its commitment to superior technology. With credit unions, good enough really isn’t-or at least it wasn’t. Right now, I’m sure plenty of credit unions are thinking that they can make it through with the technology they have now-that they can wait it out until the economy comes back and invest in better technology later. Perhaps that’s true to some extent, but is that really the most sensible approach?The reasons credit unions change core processors, for example, are many and varied. Yet those reasons can all be distilled down to one simple premise: The old system won’t do what the credit union needs it to do. Maybe it’s not customizable enough. Maybe it’s too difficult to connect third-party products. Maybe the vendor’s customer service stinks. Whatever. The credit union isn’t getting what it needs out of that system.So if mediocre technology was never OK during normal times, why would it be OK in a time of arguably tremendous opportunity?What drives growth? Effective, aggressive marketing coupled with innovative, must-have financial products. What drives these two things? Technology. Right now, marketing and technology can be-should be-your one-two punch.To any credit union that claims it can’t afford to upgrade its lackluster technology, I counter that at this most critical juncture, what you can’t afford is to have the wrong technology.Last year, credit union expert Marvin Umholtz told me he expected the number of credit unions to drop to around 5,000 in a relatively short period. I didn’t believe him then, but now I’m not so sure. What I am sure of is this: some credit unions will freeze spending entirely, others will continue to invest wisely in both marketing and technology, and the survivors will come from this latter group.

Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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