CU Water Cooler

You're a Credit Union, Not a Coffee Shop

Jimmy MarksComment

Who doesn't want to be Amazon, Starbucks or Zappos? But who can, really?

As of April of 2013, I will have worked in the CU Industry for five years. Five years! A lot's happened and, if you want the truth, I'm thankful for every second. I like credit union people. They're neat. And, for the most part, they're pretty well-grounded.

With one exception.

Over the past five years, I've read an awful lot about how credit unions should be more like [X]. I use the variable [X] there because, according to the dozens of articles I've read over the past five years, CUs should be like a lot of different companies.

Some say that credit unions should be like Zappos. Some say credit unions should be like Amazon. Recently, I read one more article that said credit unions should be like Starbucks.

Now, I write for a living. I understand you have to have a hook. But some of these articles are so divorced from the reality of credit unions that you have to shake your head. Yeah, you could have every employee on social media sites all day the way Zappos does (or did? Do they even still do that?). But considering how much harder social media's going to become and how bad most credit unions were at it anyway, is that a wise investment of an employee's time? Probably not.

Sure, Amazon's got good ideas about targeting products to people's interests or perceived interests, but when you have to go through seven different committees to get your most basic technological needs met (take my word on that...experience is the best teacher), how can you update and "innovate?"

Yeah, Starbucks was everywhere...but not so much these daysunless you're in China. And yeah, people like hanging out in a Starbucks because of the coffee smell and the trendy music, but as Geezeo's Bryan Clagett said in a CU Insight article:

"Creating this unique and relaxing "experience" and "atmosphere" for people has been very important for the coffee retailer as they have realized that this is one of the defining concepts attached to the company. But let's admit it, your credit union is not going to be a 'third place.' And it can't generate a member return by offering a coffee shop environment."

The lessons are fine, I guess, when you comb through the articles and find the "moral." But the missing piece in so many of these articles is the truth about what it takes to implement sweeping changes or make a huge impact. Zappos doesn't cut people a lot of slack on price, and they don't have to—paying full retail for the shoes you're buying is a small price for free (non-overnight) shipping back and forth to the company on your shoes and wares. And all that stellar customer service? Do you really think it could work without a strong bottom line? The kind of bottom line that gets you sold to Amazon for nearly 1 billion dollars?

Amazon's never not been an "online store." They've never had to scale back on physical locations because there were none originally. Quite the contrary—Amazon's beefing up its physical presence with more warehouses and even special Amazon-only mailboxes at 7-Eleven stores. That comes out of starting off small and ethereal and growing into something powerful and physical. I'd argue CUs have the opposite problem.

Starbucks does create a cool, inviting, hip atmosphere that's accessible. You should want to sit down and enjoy a coffee when you're there. If you're in a bank or credit union branch, why sit down? Most of those transactions need to happen quickly and efficiently. Where would I want to sit at a branch? The lending department, I guess, or with an MSR during a conversation about an account opening. But quick, painless in-and-out is the rule of law in branch design. I don't need coffee or an Enya CD. I'm fine with my money, thank you.

I will credit many of the authors of articles like these with the forethought to say "this is not a credit union we're dealing with." Smart disclosure work there, because when you're dealing with Zappos or Amazon or Starbucks, you're dealing with:

  1. A for-profit company
  2. With a multi-national presence
  3. Providing not a service, but a product
  4. That's tangible, transferable, and profitable
  5. That has worked for years, or even decades, to create an enviable corporate culture

You're not a "for-profit" company. You don't have a multi-national presence, I'm betting. And you're not selling coffee or shoes or gadgets. You're holding people's money and you parsel out a little bit of it at a them, to borrowers, to the companies that provide you services. It can feel a little one-sided when it's abstracted that much. So what can you do to create "culture" around your credit union?

I'm not an expert on Zappos, or Amazon, or Starbucks. I'm willing to bet, however, that those protocols for customer service, expectation setting, and social relevance didn't start on day one. They developed over a long, long time, and many errors that were corrected. Speaking personally, I can tell you that our company has a very high-spirited culture. We get free lunch on our birthday with a dessert prepared (or, in some cases, purchased at the store) by one of our co-workers. We work on a mostly open-door policy, with people taking time to chat as they go from one side of the office to the other. We have in-jokes and bowls of candy that we refill ourselves to share with each other. We get free soda and coffee and water. Who could ask for a friendlier place to work? I feel pretty lucky most days.

Does it cost my boss a lot of money? No, not really—he shops at Costco and buys in bulk and it keeps his employees happy, so it's a small expense in terms of the rewards it gives him and the company. In exchange for a little kindness and cheer, we work like the happy little elves we are. When things aren't clicking, we sit and talk about it, and we work together on the fix. We celebrate milestones and we cheer each other on not because anyone forced us to, but because we get along very well. You don't need to be a billion-dollar operation to create a supportive, productive culture.

And does everyone need to be on social media? No, not at all. There are plenty of people on social media sites that don't need to be on social media, in my opinion. There's a big mistake in thinking that "media" means more than "social." If you're having a rough time making friends online, consider how much that reflects on your ability to carry on a conversation or maintain a relationship off-line. Maybe it's time for a crash-course in being a conversationalist. Maybe you just need to write a few thank-you notes. Maybe you need to remember that everyone wants to feel like they're part of something.

Three things that interest me in any relationship I undertake:

  1. Proof—the social, visible evidence of a relationship. The past three products I bought came with stickers of the company logo. Why, if not to share? Where's the social proof that members are members? Where's the social proof that employees are employees? I'm getting married and I have to pick out a wedding ring. That little gold band says an awful lot without saying anything.
  2. Benefit—what do I get in addition to your product or service? Do I get a fancy app that lets me do what I have to for the day? Do I get perks and privileges others don't?
  3. Comfort—As the wise-beyond-his-years Brent Dixon once told me, "you don't buy a drill, you buy holes". I don't make a lot of unnecessary purchases; I try and keep it utilitarian. When I do plunk down the money on something, it had better fill a need, consistently.

Do your members have proof? Are there real benefits to membership? Do your members look to you for comfort?

You shouldn't try to be Starbucks, or Zappos, or Amazon—you should try to be a credit union. And what is a credit union?

It better be more than just a tiny bank with a funny name.


Jimmy Marks is the Creative Media Director with DigitalMailer. He's a guy that creates websites, web pages, email campaigns, graphics, video, audio, copywriting – anything. You name it, he's into it.