No Excuses: Growing a CU in a Shrinking Economy

July 1, 2008

No Excuses: Growing a CU in a Shrinking Economy

By Ann Marie Gunn

Newsweek's Keith Naughton wrote in January, "If you want to see what hard times look like, come to Michigan."

Thanks to a renewed passion for service coupled with enterprise sales and service initiatives, however, CapCom Credit Union in Lansing, Mich., has remained competitive by doing more for its members.

Running a credit union in a tough economy is no picnic, but you can't let hard times stop you from moving ahead. That's just an excuse. You can still wow your members and achieve great results. Our choice was simple: we adapted. At CapCom Credit Union, we don't let anything steal our passion for serving our members.

Build deeper relationships

As our members' financial situations have changed, their needs and attitudes have changed. We won't sell a penny's worth of something members don't need, but we will sell every dollar of what they do need. We've undergone intensive training to improve our ability to listen, ask the right questions, and uncover needs. This way, when we recommend a product, we know it strengthens our member's financial future and that relationship.

In the past we might have asked a member, "Would you be interested in direct deposit?" Today we lead with the benefits: "Would you like to save on gas and avoid a special trip to the credit union?" Every time a member cashes a social security or payroll check in person, we see an opportunity to help.

Introducing this proactive line of questioning to assess members' needs wasn't an easy process. At first, our staff was hesitant about asking our members so many questions. We reminded them that people join credit unions to receive this higher level of personal service.

Why wouldn't members want to learn how to get a better interest rate, lower their payment, or save money? We can only help them by asking questions, and when we neglect to offer products and services that benefit a member, we have failed. At CapCom we call that service malpractice. For that there's no excuse.

Educate members to make smart choices

No one is born with an understanding of how to manage their money. For example, not everyone automatically knows the difference between regular savings accounts, money markets, and certificates of deposit. We coach our staff about their responsibility for educating members about the differences of each option.


It's the little things that add up to member loyalty and satisfaction. If we can save a member $50 a month by refinancing an auto loan, reduce their gas costs with direct deposit, or save them time with online bill pay, we know they'll keep coming back—and even refer their friends and family.

We are also doing whatever we can to help our members make smart choices. With home prices spiraling downward, home improvements are up—so we're offering a streamlined loan with a special rate and fewer requirements than a home equity loan.

Be proactive. When we're having lots of conversations with members we find out about their plans. Whether they are doing major remodel or simply installing a new fence, we will find the product that makes their money work smarter.

Make members feel special

How do your members feel when they walk into your branches or talk to your teller? It may seem insignificant to you, but when we welcome members using their first names, those relationships are more likely to be long-term and profitable regardless of the economy. People want to know their credit union cares.

This doesn't just happen. With continuous coaching by our managers, friendly and welcoming behaviors are becoming part of our DNA.

In our staff meetings we no longer ask, "Did you meet your goals?" Instead we ask, "How many members did you help today?" We have found that if we take care of members, the numbers take care of themselves.

Keep it fun

Happy employees make happy members. We demand a lot from our staff, so we try to keep it fun.

In weekly planning meetings, employees often come up with innovative ideas for in-branch promotions. One of their ideas was a "Financially Fit" campaign during which the entire branch staff wore exercise outfits and played Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons tapes in the lobby.

This, of course, sparked members' curiosity and made it easy for front-line staff to engage members in conversations about making sure they were "financially fit" in all aspects of their accounts.

To sustain employees' enthusiasm, our branch managers have become more engaged in the service delivery process. As managers, we constantly "inspect what we expect"—and we get it.


In addition to weekly meetings, managers debrief mid-week and do one-on-one coaching daily with their teams. During these sessions they discover member success stories that we share with other branch teams via e-mail.

Consequently, it's a win/win: staff members love the recognition and that, in itself, has increased our service quality. Other branch teams get lots of successful new ideas to employ at their branches.

Learn from the experts

A few years ago, we weren't so different from other credit unions. We did all of the right things to build relationships and help our members with all of their financial needs—some of the time.

What's different today is we do these things all of the time. It isn't just the front line staff; everyone is on board from the CEO on down. No excuses.

We owe the successful integration of our sales culture to our employees and their passion for world-class service delivery standards. But we did not do this on our own.

Cohen Brown Management Group in Los Angeles showed us a way to take our vision and give it laser focus. They gave us the processes, tools, and structure needed to consistently ensure successful interactions with members and staff.

Cohen Brown's leader-led behavioral embedding approach was pivotal. Because senior executives led the employee training classes, acceptance was easier and our results were accelerated. It requires constant effort, but we have become one team, working together toward common goals.

With summer upon us, there is the inevitable grumbling about business slowing down and staffing shortages due to vacations, but we will manage through it with success. I simply tell our branch staff, "There will always be challenges, but that's no excuse. What are you going to do to make it happen today?" And we're off and running.

Ann Marie Gunn is chief operating officer and executive vice president of $242 million asset CapCom Credit Union, Lansing, Mich.