Cheney/Peters: Part II

Peters: It’s Good to be the Little Guy

Large providers can't supply the intimate experience that CUs and other small, local businesses can.

May 17, 2012

Credit unions have a lot of heavy hitters in their midst. “But the small guy has enormous advantage,” says management guru/best-selling author Tom Peters.

In the second part of a three-part interview, Peters tells CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney which financial services providers stand out from the rest and what credit unions can learn from them. He also explains the concept of “Brand You.”

Peters will address the America’s Credit Union Conference, June 17-20 in San Diego.

Cheney: Which financial services companies stand out and what can CUs learn from them?

Peters: Thanks to some time spent working for Uncle Sam—namely the Navy—I’ve had my insurance through USAA since 1966. They’ve served me well. They’ve always been responsive as the dickens—not unlike credit unions—and I get a check for $7.42 every year as a partial owner.

I’m loath to admit it, but I was in a significant accident decades ago and I was sued. We won, but not at zero cost.

There was never an issue with USAA; they never beat me up or threatened to cancel my insurance. So from my perspective, they really define long-term stability and focus on the customer.

That’s what credit unions try to do. That’s the big deal.

Another is Commerce Bank, which was sold for a jillion dollars to TD bank. I was pretty close to the people at Commerce Bank. Their focus on customer service was mind boggling.

I love a bank that scares the living hell out of the likes of Chase when they open retail branches in New York—and whose biggest measurement of success is how many dog biscuits they give away at the branches.

Their whole motto was, “We don’t want you at the ATM; we want you in the branch where we’ll do our best for you but also expose you to what we have on offer.”

I read a fabulous article in Fortune about American Express, which has done almost a 180 on customer service in the last few years. In 25 words or less, they went from an emphasis on transactions and productivity to an emphasis on building customer relationships.

Cheney: What would you tell a CU CEO who says “we’re too small to compete with the likes of USAA and American Express?”

Peters: First, I’d make a big distinction between USAA and American Express. USAA certainly is a big company, but it feels like a small company.

I’m willing to be fascinated with American Express, but it’s a monster that has its full share of flaws.

What I will tell people—and what I tell retailers who are fighting Home Depot—is that I understand you have some pretty heavy hitters in your midst. But the small guy has an enormous advantage.

I tell people in retail, if you’re a local organization and you can’t beat the hell out of Walmart, there’s something wrong with you. Small, local businesses have an opportunity for intimacy with customers that Walmart can’t duplicate. The CEO and top team can be more engaged with the communities they serve.

The best business book I’ve read in years is “Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America.” There’s a store in Fairfield, Ohio, that’s the No. 1 Christmas ornament store in the country; maybe the world. It has 30,000 to 40,000 different Christmas ornaments.

Even though Fairfield, Ohio—to the best of my knowledge—doesn’t have enough people to fill a small high school auditorium, it has people flying in from all over the world. The author has a good one-liner: “Be the best—it’s the only market that’s not crowded.” I love that.

NEXT: What is “Brand You?”

Cheney: What is “Brand You?”

Peters: My father worked in finance as a middle manager at Baltimore Gas & Electric for 41 years. If you were lucky enough, as he was back in the ‘20s, to get a college degree, you went to work for AT&T, Ford Motor Co., or Baltimore Gas & Electronic with the full expectation that you’d either die at your desk or retire at age 65 with a livable pension.

Assuming you didn’t beat the heck out of a manager along the way, you were pretty much guaranteed a long ride.

Ain’t nobody guaranteed a long ride these days.

It’s an unstable world, and in an unstable world you need to stand for something. You can no longer be Badge No. 129 in the purchasing department of the Ford Motor Co. You have to learn and grow.

A lot of people have maliciously or inadvertently taken the wrong message from the “Brand You” thing. They think it’s about being selfish and they say, “Why would any boss want 23 “Brand Yous” working for him or her?”

My answer: It’s the boss’ great salvation. You want 23 people working for you who are determined to widen their networks, to grow, and to learn something new if not every day then every week.

This is something new relative to the last 60 years when many people worked in big companies. But if you look back to your grandfather’s day, he either ran a local insurance agency with six employees, or was a blacksmith another 70 years earlier, or ran an auto repair shop. He was a Brand You.

Subscribe to Credit Union MagazineThere are jillions of them today. What else would you call the electrician who’s coming tomorrow to deal with a wiring problem in my house? If he doesn’t show up or if he does a crappy job, he doesn’t get invited back.

He’s always living on the edge and having to learn new tricks to his trade. He’s a Brand You. It doesn’t require some bizarre genetic combination to be entrepreneurial.

Cheney: It’s self-preservation these days.

Peters: Exactly.

In the last of this three-part series, Peters details his next “quest to the unknown,” explains what has and hasn’t changed in the business world since he published “In Search of Excellence” 30 years ago—and reveals why he won’t be a nice guy when he addresses the America’s Credit Union Conference in June.