How To Get Members To Tell You What They Want

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I've watched marketing managers and directors sweat out a new financial product introduction, rate changes, branch design and configuration, website launch and other alterations with the anxiety of someone about to be hanged in the morning. They are usually worried about what the reaction of the member will be, and whether their "big gamble" has paid off or not.

And make no mistake about it, members are a fickle bunch. When the newest restaurant chain opened near my home a few months ago, the waiting lines for lunch that characterized other establishments on weekdays quickly disappeared, as erstwhile loyal customers tried out the newcomer. What can you do to retain loyalty and habit when you're forced to make change or, as happens with more than restaurants, change drops in like an unwelcome guest in the form of a competitor opening just down the block?

The driving principle here is not to try to be a hero, visionary, or gambler. Ask the members what they want. They may not always know, and you may choose not to cater to all demands. But you'll be better off for having asked. It sounds so easy. Yet so few credit unions ever do it.

I was in the newly designed branch of a client of mine the other day when I heard a member in the teller line say to no one in particular, "Why did they move everything? Where are the deposit slips?" (I could have told her that the deposit slips were in the back, since I was lost trying to find the ATM location brochures and had blundered into the deposit slip area. However, she was talking to herself, and there was no sense taking chances.) The credit union in question moved things around for more modern and competitive design, or traffic flow, or who knows what reason, but certainly not because the members asked for it or more importantly, were better served by it.

There are several good reasons for asking members for their reaction before you make major changes:

1. They usually have some excellent ideas, which are available to you for free.

2. They will often point out risks or downsides that can thwart even the best plans.

3. There will be no surprises among your best members when changes are made.

4. Even if you haven't followed their advice, your members will feel better for having been asked.

5. You've provided another opportunity to communicate with your members and generate loyalty.

The smarter newspaper management has been pretty good at asking readers and advertisers what they need. They can't always comply, but they find, for example, that if stories are continued, they ought to be on the very next page, not jumped all over the place, and inserts and half-pages are annoying. "Zoning" was created-which is the insertion of neighborhood and local news unique to various areas-when readers asked for more news focused on their locales.

Any business can learn rapidly and accurately from asking the customer. While you can hire consultants to run focus groups and surveys to get the nitty-gritty data, I think it's preferable for a business simply to ask directly and openly as a regular part of their long-term strategy. Some techniques:

* Assign key people-including yourself-to take turns greeting people who enter and ask them to react to your potential changes.

* Ask tellers, MSRs and loan officers to mention changes informally and gauge customer reaction.

* Use a brief survey form at buying points, but make it very brief and have it completed on the spot.

* Offer to raffle off a prize or 500 free checks for a form chosen at random every day.

* In your statements and other customer mailings, insert a brief survey form with a dollar bill or inexpensive gift certificate (from one of your SEG s) and a paid return envelope.

* Choose the top 10% of your members and use a brief phone survey.

There's no use worrying about proposed changes as if you are in a vacuum without feedback or assistance. And none of us is so smart that we can always evaluate future member temperament or intent. Ask your members to be part of the solution, and don't view them as part of the problem.

There is, of course, one even better group to ask about your plans and from whom to solicit feedback: your employees.

Christopher Brya is CEO of the Solavista Consulting Group. He can be reached at (602) 636-2510 or on the web:

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