Made To Walk In The Shoes Of Members, Credit Union Representatives...

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Quick go up to the first stranger you come across and introduce yourself. Then tell them how much money you make and what your credit card balance is.

Feel a little uncomfortable? Well, that's exactly how your members can feel every time they walk in your door, unless your front- line staff and loan officers know how to finesse what can be an awkward situation, according to Carla Schrinner, a sales development master trainer with CUNA Mutual Group.

During her session at the company's Discovery Conference, Schrinner opened by asking everyone to turn to the person next to them and give them that very same information: name, income and credit card balance.

Cooperative people that credit union folks usually are, everyone turned to the person sitting next to them and started to comply right until Schrinner added the part about telling each other their salaries and credit card balances. Murmers of, "no way," "you've got to be kidding," and "I don't think so" chorused around the room.

"How did that make you feel?" Schrinner asked. "That pit in your stomach that's exactly how your members sometimes feel when you're asking them for this same kind of information. You wouldn't want to give a stranger that information, and neither do your members. That's why you have to make the member feel as though you know them, and if they feel you know them, you have a much better chance of building that long-term relationship we want. You have to build a member experience that the member will pay for and stay for."

To start with, it's not enough to have a good working knowledge of the credit union's products. "Your staff has to have an awareness of the financial marketplace and what the competition's products are and how the credit union's products and services measure up," Schrinner noted. "We do product knowledge training hundreds of times a year, but we only train our staff on our products. Get rid of the blinders and make sure you can compare your products with similar products at the bank down the street."

Another common problem: perception. "Have any of you ever sat down with a 22-year-old and talked about mortgages," Schrinner asked. "Of course not, you wouldn't expect a 22-year-old to have a mortgage. Which brings us to another point. How many of you have staff that doesn't use your own products and services?"

Even when a credit union has emphasized cross sales, the right things may not be emphasized. "It's not just selling a mix of products, it's selling products that they will actually use," she commented. "Seventy-five percent of accounts opened today are unprofitable that's industry wide. We have to get people to use the accounts, not just open them."

So, forget order-takers, forget cross-sell ratios, and instead focus on developing profitable relationships, Schrinner advised. To make it happen, credit unions must give their employees the skills, resources and tools to develop these relationships.

Once an employee has the product knowledge, understands the competition, and knows what the credit union wants, it's time to coach them on how to go out and get it.

The key to success: asking open-ended questions, really listening to the member and recognizing what the members' answers may mean as far as how the credit union can serve them.

"If we were to pick one skill that is the most important, it would be uncovering needs, and you do that by asking high-impact questions," Schrinner counseled. "The pitfall is that it can turn into an interrogation. So you have to have a strategy for asking questions and understand where they lead."

Members have two types of needs: perceived needs, which are the needs members already recognize (these are the needs they generally come into the CU lobby in the first place), and unperceived needs, those members may not even realize themselves. So, when a member comes in looking for, say, a checking account, the perceived need is "a place to put my money from which I can pay bills without cash."

But if that member is also, say, getting married next month, then there may be a number of unperceived needs, such as a loan for the honeymoon, or perhaps the impending marriage means the member will soon be house hunting and will need a mortgage loan.

You can get at those unperceived needs by asking the right questions questions that are open-ended and draw a person out, instead of the "factoid," single-word answers that you need for filling out an application, for example.

Divided Into Groups

To illustrate the power of high-impact questions, Schrinner had the attendees divide up into workgroups for two related projects. The first project was to come up with what sort of information it would be important to get from a member (beyond the typical, name, rank and serial number-type data), and then design questions that would elicit that kind of information.

For example, instead of just asking someone for his address, you can also find out about some unperceived needs by asking, "how long have you lived in the area?" The person who has lived in the same area for 20 years probably has a lot of equity in their home and could be a good home equity loan candidate. The person who just moved here might still be house hunting and in need of a first mortgage.

After developing the list of questions, one member of the group was assigned to play the role of CU employee, and another member was given the role of a member including profile that described why the member is visiting the credit union that day as well as what the person does for a living, and some general life stage information.

The person playing the role of the member was instructed not to let other members of the group see the profile and was told only to divulge information if it was asked for by the person playing the CU employee.

The one question that elicited the most information: "tell me about yourself." That one question provided the following information: the member (who came in for a checking account), was a recent law school graduate who just moved to the area to take her first job as an attorney, and she's getting married in a month.

Other favorite questions in no particular order: do you have accounts elsewhere and why, what are your long-term financial goals, what do you do for a living, how long have you lived in the area, and do you have any hobbies (which just might point to the need for a special loan, for example), as well as what brought you to the credit union today.

In addition to learning how to ask better questions, the project also reminded some attendees that being a teller or member service rep that first point of contact can be a real challenge.

"This was hard," said one loan officer who only vaguely remembered her days as a teller. "The transitions were awkward, and not skipping right to telling the member about a product was tough."

Important points to work on with staff:

* Explain that you're asking these questions so you'll be able to help the member pick the right product or service for him or her;

* It's all right to make it feel chatty, but don't get so lost in the conversation that you forget to be listening for ways to serve the member;

* Even the best question strategy has to be flexible, the answers to some questions may lead to a completely different set of questions.

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