Helping Members Bring Out Their Inner Barney Fife

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Were Sigmund Freud a market researcher, he'd be consumed by one question: What do consumers want?

He wouldn't be alone. There are entire schools and an army of authors (the Universe of One vs. the One Mass Market) dedicated to answering that question and, in the process, developing theories and dissertations and a string of books, each with a different conclusion and each right in their own way.

But there's also a simpler answer to the question of what do consumers want. They want Mayberry. They want Andy. And Barney. And Floyd the barber. Aunt Bea flustered over how a pie turned out. They want the kind of place where you can pick up the phone and have Sarah the operator know just how to find the person you were trying to reach (Sarah, I believe, is the patron saint of Homeland Security). I'd add that most consumers wouldn't even mind a Goober, but they likely already know more than one.

In short, nearly all consumers are seeking "community" and in quiet desperation, never finding it. Many who spend a hard life working and dreaming of retiring to Florida arrive in the Sunshine State only to discover they never meet neighbors who have walled themselves off inside their air-conditioned condo cocoons. It's why the palm tree is the perfect symbol for the state: it has a shallow root system and is easily transplanted. Younger families all over the U.S. move into so-called planned communities only to discover the only thing not in the plan was the sense of community. And the youngest generation now thinks of community as nothing deeper than a Facebook posting, all the while sadly suspicious there must be more to friendship than an electronic "link."

If credit unions are in danger of missing an opportunity it is in abandoning the "community" they have long represented as they grow and expand their fields of membership at precisely the same time many in that membership feel they are standing alone in a field. It's a confounding paradox: credit unions are exiting the same room their prospective members are hoping to enter.

We've all seen documented the stories of businesses that failed after losing their way by trying to be all things to all, well, you know their story. Credit unions can't fill most of the community "holes" people feel in their lives, but they can play a huge role in creating a much-needed sense of connection to a much-felt affinity: personal finance.

Few issues in daily life evoke the emotional response and turmoil as does your own little personal balance sheet. The rich fret their portfolios are underperforming, the poor worry they are falling further behind, and the middle class are tormented by both concerns.

It is this very core issue that is the basis for the formation of credit unions in the first place. It's time to dust off this old premise and put it to good use in a new environment: the Internet.

If you haven't already done so, your credit union would be wise to step in and fill the void so many members are feeling. The first step is to use the credit union's website to ensure you communicate what it is that you are and how and why you were structured: this is the "union" part of the name (perhaps best expressed as you-nion) that typically gets short shrift. Every building, even those built of zeroes and ones, has a cornerstone, and this one lays the groundwork to ensure there is a community in place looking out for his or her best interests. Consumers are wary for good reason, and when they find the so-called "trusted advocate," well, that's the "stickiness" that used to be such a buzzword.

The second step is to use the credit union's website as more than a static, electronic brochure. Many members are already comfortable using blogs and turning to other online communities for advice, to trade tips, and to get feedback. Every single credit union website should offer just such a community when it comes to personal finance. The credit union itself can provide everything from financial basics to more sophisticated guidance-but in plain English and not shotgunned all over the site. But what will bring this community life is member input-their postings on cost-savings tips, changes they've made that have improved their own finances, how to do a better job of shopping around, even what's worked and not worked in teaching their own kids how to be financially responsible.

Offering such a personal finance community will require active monitoring and work on the part of the credit union, and needs to be built into someone's job description. But it's also the kind of endeavor in which your credit union will be able to measure the long-term ROI.

And in the process you can also help your members bring out their inner Barney Fife.

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal and can be reached at fdiekmann

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