'Slinkies' Just 'One Of The Little Things That Mean A Lot'

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Veteran credit union industry professionals might consider handing out Moon Pies or Slinkies during teller training a bit silly.

But officials with Gulf Coast Community FCU, in the heart of the area hit by Katrina, are the first to confess to their silliness, and say they'll try any trick to keep employees happy and productive for the membership.

"It sounds trite, some of the things we do," acknowledged EVP of Financial Services Debbie Pidek. "We want them to have fun at work. Little things mean a lot."

All of those little things added up to quite a bit for Gulf Coast FCU, which has been selected as one of the Best Places to Work in Mississippi. The award is presented annually by the Mississippi Business Journal and determined by employees of respective companies and employers filling out a 70-item, online questionnaire divided into several categories: common purpose, culture and values, communication and cooperation, my department, my job, learning and development plus performance and recognition. With 38 full-time employees and $66 million in assets, Gulf Coast won in the category of a small business with fewer than 50 full-time employees.

What CU Seeks In New Hires

Pidek said she is especially gratified that the awards are based on employee surveys, as employee satisfaction has been identified by Gulf Coast managers as one of their top priorities. Pidek said while everyone hires employees for the long term, Gulf Coast managers look for a new staffer with an upbeat attitude to cross sell products on the teller line, plus the desire to move up within the CU's promotion system. In fact, Pidek told The Credit Union Journal that Gulf Coast is so content with its employee turnover rate, that the credit union doesn't even track it.

Pidek said from the initial interview and new-employee training, Gulf Coast sets a fun tone. Prospective employees are interviewed by a group of staffers to determine their potential sales skills. Part of the interview involves handing them a pencil and paper clip. "We ask them to sell it to us," she said.

If someone can sell such a mundane item as a paper clip to credit union managers, Pidek said they're welcome at Gulf Coast. After hiring, employees spend a week doing nothing but watching a frontline teller work a station before commencing formal training with HR training chief Josh Peterson.

Tellers work on computerized training modules with "Jeopardy"-style quizzes to test the "newbies'" knowledge. Tellers with the right answers have a Moon Pie tossed their way. Pidek said it's a fun way to test employees, but also reinforces the CU's philosophy of providing good member service and having fun while you're doing it.

"Product knowledge is critical. They have to have the confidence in selling products," she said.

Far from short-term fixes, Gulf Coast FCU says all the zany games, free lunches and toy trinkets create an upbeat atmosphere that directly effects member service, sales and retention. Pidek reports that an average Gulf Coast teller has been on the line for 1.5 years with most moving on to financial services associate positions, where staff averages more than six years on the job. Gulf Coast managers all have more than 10 years of service.

"We're more likely to lose someone internally (through promotion)," she said.

Gulf Coast managers also take the time to explain CU goals and why they're important. For example, the credit union made a big push to sell gap insurance for auto loans. With the hurricane destroying so many vehicles, gap insurance (and lack thereof) has become crucial for many members. After fully briefing employees, Pidek said 2005 ended with 45% of its auto loans coupled with gap insurance.

Lunch-And Cash

On top of everyday acts such as buying lunch on a rainy day, Pidek said Gulf Coast uses cash incentives with loan officers being eligible for as much as $1,000 every month for reaching goals. Also, all employees take online educational classes for professional development at their own pace.

For all of the feel-good acts and hardcore financial incentives, Pidek said none of it matters unless the employees truly feel appreciated and trust their leaders to do the right thing for them and the membership. Gulf Coast FCU CEO Lisa Lindsey recently rewarded two employees, who have been staffing its mobile branch at the site of a destroyed Gulf Coast branch, in front of their peers and gave one free airline tickets and the other a family vacation in the Florida panhandle.

"We have high expectations, but we reward good behavior. If you give us the value, we'll recognize you for it."

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