Credit Unions? Snobs Who Are Based In Timbuktu

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Watching video of a focus group of consumers talking about their banks can be comforting to CU leaders-until the conversation turns to credit unions themselves.

And then the conversation can get uncomfortable fast, with a side dish of aggravation and frustration. And all of it is being served up at a time when the news headlines don't seem to add up, almost like reading a poll of voters showing they detest Candidate A right before they elect him in a landslide.

First, the comforting part. Just prior to CO-OP's recent THINK Conference, researcher Neil Goldman put together a focus group of consumers from Palm Beach County, Fla. (the meeting was in Boca Raton). When the group of random folks around the table was asked about banks, it didn't take much prompting to get them talking, and your first name doesn't need to be Nostra or last name Damus to guess at the responses.

People griped about fees, expressed anger over the bank bailout and chafed at difficulties in making transfers. One person complained, "They're paying CEOs all these millions and not helping me in any way." Another shared a story of having $20 deducted from her child's account in fees-an account that had $80 in it.


Mad As Hell...And Taking It

But if you're assuming all these focus group participants are moving to credit unions, you're out of focus. When the moderator asked the very same people about changing FIs, they all said they were likely to stay put. "Everything (bills) is automatically paid through my checking. The idea of having to go to this website and make these changes, oh...," said one person, groaning at the thought. Said another, "My reason for not moving is laziness, I guess. Unless they do something terribly wrong, I doubt I'll change."

Those kinds of responses, observed Goldman, are why so many CU switch kits are off-target. "Switch kits address coming to you, but don't address the emotional challenges of leaving," he said.

The real eye-opener for many CU execs came-or should have come-when the focus group was prompted to talk about credit unions. As a long-time former resident of Palm Beach County, Fla., by the way, before I share those responses it's worth noting that there isn't a big, strong CU presence in a county where the wealth has attracted many banks. The largest CU in Palm Beach County is IBM Southeast, whose name implies it (and other CUs) are closed to outsiders.


Credit Unions? They're 'Snobby'

With that said, here are the frank responses from residents when asked about CUs:

* "I'm paying too much in gas right now to drive to Timbuktu to go to a credit union."

* "In my brain they've always been private establishments, almost like a snobby thing."

* "Credit unions are not inviting to you. It's not clear what you have to do to be a part of one, but I think it's like through a spouse's work or a company. I don't have an 'in.'"

* "I can only think of one credit union in the county that I've driven by. They need to explain their services and where they can find you and tell me what they are offering that my banking institution doesn't offer."

* "I've never seen one."

* "Convenience is the only thing that prevents me from joining."

* "I don't know what you would even use a credit union for? I don't have any friends in a credit union."

* "The thing about the difference between credit unions and banks is there are more banks with more ATMs and options."

* "I feel they are like a check-cashing place. They don't advertise very well. I've never been inside of one. The ones I see look a little seedy."

* "I thought it was for unions. I'm not in a union. Maybe they could call all credit unions 'credit union.' I know I'm passing them, but I never notice them."

Many in the audience laughed at some of the responses, although it seemed that crying might have been more appropriate. It's a big mistake to listen to those kinds of responses and just dismiss them as being "wrong."

Convenience (or more appropriately, the perception of convenience) was a big issue with the focus group. When the leader asked people to estimate how many ATMs Chase Bank has, for instance, many guessed at least 100,000. When the group was told it's 17,000, they were surprised, and then even more surprised when informed the CO-OP Network offers 28,000 ATMs.

The most interesting dichotomy, however, is that the focus group took place at the same time Credit Union Journal was reporting a surging tide of new member sign-ups and when another conference was hearing a message from a futurist who was quite keen on credit unions' market position.


'Pouring Out Of Your Pores'

That futurist, Salim Ismail of Singularity University, was a keynoter last week during the Wisconsin league's meeting in Milwaukee. As part of his talk, Ismail placed financial institutions on a quadrant map that used the axes of "Community" and "Trust."

"Credit unions are the only place I can see that have trust and community in spades," he observed. "Think of every web start-up; it's desperately seeking community and trust, and you have it pouring out of your pores. How we manage ourselves at the local level is becoming very important."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at

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