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Love them tender, love them sweet. Never let them go.

Maybe Elvis Presley was on to something.

Relationships-even the kind you have with your members-need nurturing to thrive, even around Valentine's Day. When that doesn't happen, they fall apart.

But, unlike those other bad break ups with all the obvious drama- tears, broken picture frames and unkind words-credit union members often walk away without so much as a good-bye. Some take everything the two of you shared-checking accounts, auto loans, even mortgages while others leave subtle reminders of your past together-perhaps a $5 share account or an ignored home equity line of credit.

Either way, the rejection hurts.

But, say marketers across the country, it doesn't have to end like this. With some gentle nudging, a show of sensitivity and a few attractive incentives, these lost loves might just be persuaded to give you another chance.

"It always costs more to get a lost account back than it does to bring in a new one," pointed out Mark DeBellis, president of PBS, The Marketing Supersource, Lake Forest, Calif. Ideally, he said, credit unions should be more mindful of those relationships before they stray. "I look at it like any relationship question with somebody you care about. The big question to me is, 'What have you done to nurture the relationship?"'

Are you being sensitive to the competitive rate environment? Are you offering attractive incentives?

Shower Them With Gifts

Nicolette Lemmon, president of LemmonTree Consulting Group, Phoenix Ariz., agreed. "You have to romance them," she said. Send them love letters, shower them with gifts and reveal your best side.

"Remember that you can always go back to members that have relationships other places and offer them deals to get them back," Lemmon added.

Whether they have one foot out the door ot have gone completely and you want to try and win them back, give it your all, the marketers agreed. Chances are other suitors are already on the prowl. "Whatever you offer, it does have to be wrapped in an attractive incentive," said Lemmon. "A gift card or a vacation package. Give them a reason to take time out of their busy day and feel rewarded for it."

She noted that Michigan First Credit Union in Detroit was very successful with such a strategy. "The (member) gets something tangible and fun and you get the business back."

It worked for Postal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn. The $366-million CU used a simple direct mail campaign that included a cute puppy with sad eyes and the offer of a free Subzero Rolling Cooler Bag to motivate some 583 members into reactivating their accounts.

"We're always trying to encourage inactive members to use our services," said Cindy Noldy, marketing manager at PCU. "We want to meet their needs but we aren't able to do that when we haven't seed them in a significant period of time."

She said the puppy dog-a golden lab puppy with his head on the floor looking like he just lost his best friend-was a hit.

"The response was almost immediate," Noldy said. "We were hearing from member service reps that members loved the promotion. A few expressed surprise at the message-"We've Missed You"-and a lot were very interested in the incentive."

Noldy said the CU sent some 3,900 postcards to adult members whose accounts had been inactive for awhile.

Lemmon said too many CU managers believe that once an account is lost, it's gone forever. "I don't agree," she said. "I believe in the saying, 'Make new friends, but keep the old. There's a lot more outside debt to be captured from those who have accounts with the credit union but are also doing business with other financial institutions."

Lemmon noted her company relies heavily on MCIF software to track members' product usage and monitor the success of promotional efforts to reach them. "There is so much competition, you do have to make sure you are really mining the database," she said. "It's a very important factor to finding the gold."

Once you have that information, Lemmon said, it's important to use it. That means matching members with specific products and services and reminding them again and again and again until they respond.

"You may have told them about your home equity line five years ago," she said. "But they've forgotten. The reality is that people pay attention only at the time when they need something."

Her rule of thumb is to hit them with advertising seven times. "I call it the Magic of Seven-it takes seven touches before they remember a credit union's name. If you are out there on a regular basis, the more likelihood you have of building on that relationship."

Lemmon said one marketing tool that she offers to clients is quarterly "love letters."

"We send them to the top 10% and the most profitable members of the credit union," she said. "We let them know how much their credit union loves them."

The hope, of course, is that they will share that love and use more CU products and services.

At the $53-million FinancialEdge CU in Bay City, Mich., Marketing Manager Pam Swope sent out gentle reminders to more than 15% of its members with dormant home equity lines of credit.

"We did an initial mailing back in October to try and rebuild those relationships," Swope said, adding that the CU's management and board are in the process of developing a plan to target inactive and non-profitable members as well.

"This is a really critical area in any of the planning sessions that we attend," she said. "It sounds horrible and bank-like, I know, but we still have to stay in business. We have to try to get them not to be just $5 shares."

Michigan State University FCU in East Lansing has already taken those steps with mixed results, said Joyce Banish, VP of Marketing. "Every six months, we send our dormant accounts letters and ask them to do a loan or Visa or maintain a $100 balance in their checking account," Banish said. Some do come back while others simply cut the ties completely.

"It bothers me when we send these letters out, because it's a month where we also lose accounts," she said. "A lot of members will just take what small amount they have out."

It makes sense, she agreed, because they are being charged fees. But, it still stings a bit. The $1.2-billion MSUFCU recently surveyed "lost" accounts to find out why they left. Not surprisingly, Banish said, "95% left because they moved out of the area completely."

With information that explained how they could continue that relationship despite the distance, many rejoined, she said. There was a slight glitch in that rules related to its FOM require that they join the CU's alumni association first, she said, noting that it was a bit of a hassle.

Recapture The Relationship

CUNA Mutual Group offers its member credit unions marketing tools to recapture lost auto loan and home equity business.

Unlike a traditional marketing approach, the company endorses a method to track only those members who took out loans elsewhere in the last six, 12 or 18 months, said Denis Karandjeff, Lending Marketing Solutions Manager, CUNA Mutual Group.

In addition, they establish pre-screening boundaries and further narrow the field only to those members with decent credit scores.

"We combine those together and present a mailing of prequalification to that member asking them to bring back their loan to the credit union," Karandjeff said.

The typical response is 3%, he said, much better than the mass marketing approach that typically yields a 1% response, he said. Some CU clients that have taken a proactive stance that includes follow-up phone calls have seen returns as high as 11%.

But, Karandjeff agreed with other marketing experts that rate alone is not enough.

"One of the keys to success is that you have to have a competitive offer and some kind of incentive," he said. "A gas card or cash back."

CMG's marketing team is working on similar marketing approaches to address other lost or waning accounts, Karandjeff said.

"There was a study from Forrester Research that showed 26% of bank customers will make a bank their primary financial institution and 46% of credit union members will consider a credit union their primary institution," he said. "We have to help steer them in the right direction so they can reap the rewards that credit unions offer."

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