A Gut Feeling Something's Not Right In The Message

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The old "gut feeling" took something of a punch in the gut last week.

Probably responsible for more business successes-including those at credit unions-than any other "process," the old "gut feeling" is regularly under attack as antiquated and out-of-step with today's "rapidly changing business environment." During last week's CUES' Marketing Operations & Technology Conference, one keynoter was critical of business decisions he said are often made hastily, with a reliance on either poor or unreliable data, or-and this is apparently worst of all-gut feelings or intuition.

I have a gut feeling I disagree.

What intuition has working against it is that it's qualitative and abstract, meaning it can't be put into books and taught in MBA- level management courses. Academics have a special disliking for those who come by their talents naturally and who aren't "school- learned." After all, what keeps alive all those rumors and suspicions that Bill Shakespeare didn't write the works attributed to him more than the fact he didn't attend university. How ironic is it that many business school case studies of success feature those who never attended business school. A related strike against intuition is that it can't be neatly put in writing on a job evaluation form or resume.

And yet, I would say that most successful credit union CEOs and managers got the job or grew their operations precisely because of things they can't pinpoint. Unfortunately, I also have a gut feeling that in most growing operations there is something of a Gut Feeling Paradox: the larger the credit union, the more difficult it becomes to act on the feeling you have in your gut-unless that was Thai food you had for lunch.

Here's a question to ask yourself if you're a credit union manager or CEO: How many employees, consultants, research reports, board members and layers of management does information have to pass through before it gets to your desk? And in flowing the other direction, after having used that information to make a decision, how many employees, consultants, research reports, board members, second-guessers and layers of management stand between you and the execution of that decision?

For credit unions, of course, the key to answering the questions above is asset size. Every manager of a small credit union will tell you they wear many hats-too many hats, in fact. Yet they will also tell you what they relish is the opportunity to essentially run their own business and to act on their own perceptions and instincts.

Kevin Clancy told the CUES meeting that "Knowing what members want is the forte of credit unions." Clancy has written a book entitled, "Counter-Intuitive Marketing: Achieve Great Results Using Common Sense." Among his remarks to the crowd was the observation that (and I believe you'll agree this part is primarily a reference to men) "testosterone-based thinking includes making decisions based on intuition rather than knowledge of real customer needs and problems."

Setting aside the fact it's hard to go broke in these otherwise PC days with any book or TV show that pokes fun or even ridicules males for their ineptitude, I think there's something of a disconnect between Clancy's two statements above. Credit unions "know" what members want precisely because they use common sense and intuition. You don't need a focus group or a research study to know people like to be treated decently, want to earn a respectable return on their savings and like to pay as little as possible to borrow money. Good managers "sense" that a product or service needs to be added or subtracted, that a teller would make for a good loan officer, and that a particular message is really resonating in marketing efforts.

Henry Ford and Steve Jobs didn't need a consultant to tell them respectively that people wanted an affordable automobile or to be able to use a personal computer without needing to know Fortran. The only two airlines that are flying high right now-Southwest and JetBlue-didn't need a team from the Harvard Business School to tell them folks like cheap airline tickets, that employees must recognize they're all in this together and that costs need to be strictly controlled.

Ask any small business owner who's successful why he has thrived when so many failed, and chances are he'll tell you he just "had a feeling" how the business needed to be run.

To be sure, Clancy did make clear that the decision-making pendulem can swing too far, observing that "Companies that want to use 'Death Wish Marketing' will become fixated on focus groups. Some of them go so far as to hypnotize their focus group members, believing they are getting true and honest feedback." (Perhaps hypnosis is how the banks really do it: "You're getting sleepy, very sleepy. You secretly desire fees and want a high credit card APR...")

"It is better to do your research and look for what people will be looking for tomorrow," Clancy told the meeting. Indeed, but even that can often be based on gut feeling. Frankly, intuitive managers know that what people want tomorrow is pretty much what they've always wanted. And that's based on the best data of all.

What's your gut feeling?

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann cujournal.com.

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