The Ups & Downs of Selling

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A major West Coast credit union has invaded one of the last bastions of members' personal space, but officials say the results have been uplifting.

Washington State Employees Credit Union, the Evergreen State's second largest CU, has met the challenges of personalizing its first "teller-less" branch through a sales strategy called "elevator time."

According to Will Rance, WSECU's vice president of volunteer and community relations, there has yet to be one complaint about what some may be consider a highly intrusive marketing initiative.

"The only complaints we've heard, in fact, have been over the fact that the branch has no tellers," Rance explains. "I think we've gotten three of those since the branch opened last June."

"Elevator time" and its related strategy, "foyer time," were developed specifically for the $843-million WSECU by International Banking Technologies (IBT), an Atlanta-based design/build and consulting firm, to increase credit union awareness among current and potential members who work at the five-story Tacoma (Wash.) Rhodes Center, a state office building in downtown Tacoma in which WSECU occupies ground floor space.

Plainly put, credit union sales representatives greet state workers in the building's large foyer and ride the elevators with them to talk about credit union membership, products and promotions. The credit union employees may distribute product literature or membership kits or, at the very least, attempt to get the workers' names and offices and, if possible, exchange business cards for follow up visits over the course of the following week."Elevator time" and "foyer time" are extensions of the more familiar "aisle time" used by financial institutions with in-store supermarket branches, a similar one-to-one marketing strategy IBT officials say has met with significant success.

Designed Just For Credit Union

"IBT actually designed the elevator time selling concept for WSECU," says John Nicola, IBT's senior vice president. "While in-store branch associates strike up conversations with potential members in the aisles of supermarkets, WSECU associates begin conversations in elevators or lobbies. Aisle prospecting is a standard practice in this industry; however, WSECU is our first client to use elevator time."

Despite its intrusive sounding nature, Rance is quick to point out that credit union sales associates employ a soft-sell strategy that focuses on building relationships with the state workers, many of whom already are WSECU members. "We instruct our sales and service people to be extremely low-key," he explains. "If they can't bring up the credit union in a natural manner, then we tell them not to."

In support of that soft-sell approach, however, WSECU has concentrated on hiring staff with a sales rather than a credit union background so that opportunities, when they do arise, won't be missed. Frequent appearances familiarize members with staff so that, come the inevitable elevator ride, the entr?e already has been made for a WSECU discussion.

"Contact depends a lot on the initial interaction," Rance says of the staff, who wear WSECU "Team Spirit" t-shirts to identify themselves. "It's pretty soft and because so many already are members, there is an existing familiarity with and kinship between the members and the credit union."

"Elevator time" is supported by additional face-to-face strategies. The credit union often hosts evening educational sessions at its first-floor facility, inviting workers in the building to stop by and learn about personal finance and other related topics. With prior permission, WSECU also will host brown bag lunches and other events within the office suites themselves, taking education and marketing opportunities virtually to employees at their desks and in their own conference rooms.

The advantage of such an overall sales strategy should be obvious. What's less evident, Rance says, is the role credit union reps play in introducing the on-site technology-driven branch. Complaints about a lack of tellers aside, employees that are present serve as educators, helping members learn how to use the deposit and withdrawal technology, as well as answer questions and make loans. "This branch does everything any other branch does with the exception of dispensing coin," Rance says.

The high-touch support of this high-tech environment-the first of its kind among WSECU's 17 statewide branches- has helped ease in the new automated approach with members, who are invited to stop by to compare rates, register for door prizes and other strategies to get them to use the branch location more fully. But there's also a longer-term strategy involved, one that will change the way WSECU does business among all its outlets.

"This whole approach is really different for us," Rance says. "Most credit unions aren't as sales-oriented as this site. This will become the blueprint for what we will look for system-wide, coupled with a continued emphasis on members service and relationship building."

Indeed, "elevator time" is the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg that emphasizes gentle persuasion in moving members to greater levels of financial product penetration, with an emphasis on increased value and better service. Employees receive incentives totaling between eight and 10 percent of their income based on team and individual sales success, but Rance says the goal is greater than merely meeting and beating a quota.

"Frankly, this whole office is an experiment," he says. "Our real goal is to continue meeting members needs and making sure they get the services for which they qualify. We think this approach will help us do just that."

No Reason To Turn Back

The program has been in place since last June, when the branch opened, and the adjustment to a sales-based environment has been a little challenging at times, Rance admits. But the staff is enthusiastic and, based on the success of the work they've done thus far, see no reason to turn back.

"There are about 2,000 current and potential members to serve in this building alone," Rance says. "But we're in downtown Tacoma and there are a lot of buildings full of both city and county employees nearby.

"The staff sees the entire four- to six-block radius of the Rhodes Center as its lobby," he adds. "They want everyone who can be a credit union member to know about it and I have no doubt they'll reach that goal."

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