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  • Writer's pictureFred Kelly

The Secret Sauce Every Credit Union Can Use

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

You know what your members hate most? Not knowing. The single action you can take to transform the relationship with your members is to communicate with them when they are in doubt.

Not all communication is good of course. Unwanted communication is called spam. The key to communication is knowing what to communicate and when. Great results are normally the result of a well-designed process.

This starts from before they become members all the way through to them becoming fans of your credit union and helping to refer more members to you. There are 9 phases along the member experience process with you and each requires communication tailored to that stage.

Why Bother?

Of course, most companies believe they are delivering on customers’ needs. According to research by Bain & Company, when asked, 80 percent of companies say they deliver “superior experience” to their customers. Obviously, that suggests they are satisfied with what they are already doing.

The problem is that there is a perception gap. The same research revealed that only 8 percent of customers felt the companies delivered “superior experience”.

The key word here is ‘experience’. The common belief is that people buy products or services. In fact, whether they realize it or not, people buy experiences. It’s how a product or service makes you feel that influences the buying decision and the quality of the relationship necessary for repeat purchases and referrals. As we will see, the buying stage is just the start of the experience.

It’s a human need to feel cared for, loved and acknowledged. However, those connections that we form with people must be genuine

Here are some real life examples of how customers feel about their credit union experience:

  • Feeling miss informed, lied to, and taking advantage off is not the best way to start a business relationship. At this point I’m considering refinancing with my current bank”

  • “Friendly staff, but I’m super disappointed

  • “Very bad experience..They don't reply to emails..applied for a loan which they said will be done today..which they keep saying everyday”

  • “Respond to email is more than 48hrs as stated on website or you don't get any response or quality of response is out of context. It's very hard to get someone to speak to on the phone no matter how many times you try calling. Always enter automated voice message” No complaint handling team so you can't escalate issues to anybody

  • “I trusted [NAME] Credit Union and its representatives word, but the truth is they do not care and don't have your back at all. They were MIA when I needed them most.”

  • “I dealt with them for 10 years they treated me like I was just some number to them no matter what I tried to get from them they would never even put in any effort to try to help me or keep me as a member”

  • “I've faced bankers who are obnoxious used car salesmen- that pressure or demand you adopt loans or overwhelming debt rates without care, patience, explanation or kindness. This is the opposite”

I have purposely picked out negative reviews (and a positive one) from a number of credit unions. Some of these credit unions have great ratings some don’t. I highlight them to demonstrate the opportunity for the industry across the board and further differentiate the customer experience from that offered by a large bank.

The theme through these reviews is an emotional one. Members are dissatisfied because of how they feel. They normally go to the trouble of leaving bad reviews because their feelings weren't acknowledged.

This implies two process failures:

  • The process failure that gave rise to the original issue

  • The process failure that left the member dissatisfied

The good news is that the first can be rescued by the second. If you fail twice, it's a long road to regain trust.

It's Good Business

Because of their regulatory nature, how complaints are handled is a key indicator of the effectiveness of a credit union’s risk management framework. As part of their examination of a credit unions compliance management system (CMS), the NCUA looks at the number and subject matter of consumer complaints involving the credit union since the preceding examination effective date. When warranted, the NCUA will review the underlying complaint documents and credit union response.

But most importantly of all, this is just good business practice. Credit unions have a clear purpose that differentiates them. The customer experience is at the heart of that.

So how can we systematize the customer experience?

The 9 Phases of Customer Experience

Joey Coleman, is his superb book Never Lose a Customer Again: Turn Any Sale into Lifelong Loyalty in 100 Days, suggests there are 8 key phases in the customer experience journey. I have added a ninth which covers the initial communication - marketing.

The nine phases of the process are:

  1. Attract - grabbing attention amongst the digital overload

  2. Assess - the member is deciding if they want to do business with you

  3. Admit - the member believes your credit union can solve their problem

  4. Affirm - buyer's remorse strikes

  5. Activate - the first major post sale interaction

  6. Acclimate - the member learns how your organization does business

  7. Accomplish - the customer achieves the result they were seeking when they first decided to do business with you

  8. Adopt - the member adopts the organization and proudly shows support for your credit union

  9. Advocate - the member becomes a fan and referrer of new members

Let's take a look at each in turn...

(Download a pdf version here)


The first obstacle is how to attract a member's attention and convey how we solve their problem. This is equally true for existing members (who may have a need for one of your products) or a potential member you wish to recruit. Most people would refer to this as marketing.

Attracting people’s attention is hard. We are all inundated with information arriving through numerous devices. The studies vary on this, but we get an average of 50 notifications a day on our phones. The average office worker receives about 121 emails daily. What’s more our attention spans are plummeting. At the beginning of this century, we managed to concentrate for 12 seconds. Now, we’re down to eight.

The key to attraction is a headline or image that stands out from the crowd and is specific to your target audience. The best book I have read on this is Copywriting Secrets: How Everyone Can Use The Power Of Words To Get More Clicks, Sales and Profits . . . No Matter What You Sell Or Who You Sell It To! [Kindle] Don't be put off by the title or the front cover!


In the Assess phase, having attracted their attention, the member is deciding if they want to do business with you. They evaluate your product's value proposition and learn more about your organization.

Try and avoid falling into the trap of about your credit union is in this phase. You know the sort of thing, “we are better than a bank”, “we were established in 1925”, “we are member-owned”. These are all reasonable things to say, of course, but the problem is that they all begin with “we” instead of “you”. Members are primarily interested in themselves. Their needs, their worries their desires.

What’s more, these desires don’t end with the artificial separation pre and post-sale. The member’s needs transcend a credit union’s internal departments and functions. The member also wants to know what happens after they have bought the product. Remember the member review we looked at earlier “they treated me like I was just some number to them”. That’s what they are worried about after the sale.

In banks, this is normally hardwired into the sales process. It’s all about the sale. In some cases, everything a sales representative does is effectively geared around getting the customer to sign. Commissions, rewards, high fives etc. I don't blame the sales people. They have bills to pay and families to support. They have been set up to fail by their company's sales incentive system.

While the compensation culture is different in credit unions, in part because of rule 701.21(c)(8)(i) of the NCUA’s regulations, the anecdotal evidence visible on Trustpilot is that there is room for improvement in the post sale experience.

Opportunity: Tailor all marketing to the needs of the customer. Measure customer delight metrics throughout the process and celebrate success with those that deliver it to reinforce the customer experience culture in your credit union.


In the Admit phase the member believes your credit union can solve their problem. As a result, they decide to buy your product. This is often the high point of the relationship. As a consumer when we think we have found the solution to a problem we are excited and relieved. We are keen to get the credit card out and make the purchase. Hopefully, the purchase itself is free of friction. Think “one-click” Amazon.

In reality, it’s not. For loan products there is an application process. That might invlove pysical pieces of paper, or even going into a branch. There may be a delay before a decision is made and the customer informed. They may even be denied the purchase if they don’t meet the credit union’s credit policy for example. As a result, the excitement doesn't reach its pinnacle until the loan is approved.

Opportunity: Communicate with the member to confirm you have received the application and that all is in order. Let them know you are excited about helping them get the loan and why they have made a great choice.


In the Affirm phase members often feel fear, doubt, and uncertainty about the decision they just made, and the business must take steps to assuage those feelings. This is commonly referred to as “buyer’s remorse.”

In the case of a credit union, this may be :

  • Direct (what happens if I don’t make the repayments? Perhaps I could have found a better deal elsewhere? Are these guys going to support me when I need to make changes?) or

  • Indirect (I shouldn’t have bought this house, will the contract I leased the machinery for work out?). This is the point your member needs reassurance about their decision to work with you and support for any doubts they have.

In a 2011 paper, Cornell University psychologists Emily Rosenzweig and Tom Gilovich took a look at how buyer’s remorse varies across 2 types of purchases:

  • Material purchases: Physical objects like computers, cars, and TVs

  • Experiential purchases: Experiences like concerts, vacations, and skydiving

They found that material choices are far more likely to lead to buyer’s remorse. However, they also found that focusing participants on the experiential properties of the very same purchase was enough to ameliorate the level of buyer’s remorse. This is a very useful thing to know. Just by focusing on the member’s experience, we can reduce the impact of buyer’s remorse.

Opportunity: Whether you have real time digital lending decisioning or it is part of a more complex manual process, you can let the member know what’s happening in the background, how long it takes and how you will keep them informed of progress.


In the Activate is the first major post sale interaction with your product. The objective here is to energize the relationship and propel it forward with an official “kickoff” of the relationship. Unfortunately, now that the sale is made, this is exactly the point at which most businesses take their foot off the relationship accelerator.

In reality, we all know that this is where the work begins. The objective is to make a great impression early on in the relationship. Here again, credit unions have an in-built advantage potential. As member driven organizations, credit union can let the new customer know what it feels like to be a member as opposed to merely being a customer of a bank.

Opportunity: Celebrate with a welcome pack, a video, a call from the CEO (maybe hard for all transactions but even if it’s for high value loans it’s got to be worthwhile), an invitation to special event for new members.


In the Acclimate phase, the member learns how your organization does business. The customer needs to get familiar with the various interactions that occur during the relationship.

As a credit union you will deliver a mortgage or auto loan hundreds or thousands of times, so it’s natural to assume everyone knows the process and what will happen next. New members don’t have this understanding and need more hand-holding than you think.

Mortgages in particular, are complex and emotional products. According to a survey by, about 40% of Americans say buying a new home is the most stressful event in modern life. Another 44% said they felt nervous throughout the home-buying process. What’s more one in 10 suffered buyer’s remorse and another 13% think they overpaid for their home.

I recently purchased a house. I asked how the process worked and was told it was simple - sign the contract, pay the money, register the property. It wasn't. It isn't.

Opportunity: create easily digestible infographics that sow the key steps in the process with links to more details about how to carry out each step. People don't want to read a 150 page guide. They want to see a route map and where they can easily get additional information. Where possible, help your customer complete these steps. Offer help and support throughout the process.


In the Accomplish phase, the customer achieves the result they were seeking when they first decided to do business with you. In the case of a loan, it’s when the money hits their account. Unfortunately, few companies pay attention to this important milestone.

Opportunity: send the member a congratulatory personalized message. Follow up with a phone call to see if everything is OK and remind them you are there to help throughout the entire relationship. Create a personalized video wishing them well with their new house, car or business venture. Send them a bunch of flowers or a new door mat when they move in to their new house. Send them a something they’ll need for the vehicle they just acquired with your loan.

Let me share a quick story. It was around 2007, and I stayed at the Four Seasons in Dublin, Ireland. I was based in London but worked for an Irish bank so spent a lot of time in Dublin. I had just checked out of the hotel and was due to make the short walk to the office for some meetings. Being Ireland, rain is not unheard of. It started pouring down. I travel light and wasn’t going to go through the hassle of bringing an umbrella on the plane. As I stepped outside, a voice said “Mr Kelly you’ll be needing an umbrella”. The doorman handed me a Four Seasons umbrella and ushered me towards the hotel limousine. Five minutes later it delivered me to the reception at my bank’s HQ.

What’s remarkable about this story, is that I had already purchased and consumed the product (2 nights stay). I was leaving the building. Most hotels would have seen the rain as my problem. I was now in the Adopt phase.


In the Adopt phase, the member adopts the organization and proudly shows support and affinity for your credit union. Having accomplished the original goal, the customer now decides to double down on the association and establish a long-term relationship. At this point the customer mentally and emotionally commits to continuing the business relationship even if another purchase isn’t obviously imminent.

This is the point where most financial institutions fail. We normally get radio silence, interspersed with an occasional pitch to buy a new product. Does that feel like they care about us?

Opportunity: Credit unions are community organizations. What does it feel like to be part of your credit union? Does it really feel like being part of a family? Invite them to events, show them what your membership gets up to. Finally, most of us have had a loan of some kind. That normally means we have to make a payment every month. Has your lender every thanked you for making that payment? Do you ever get a birthday card from your bank (not an ecard, a real card signed by your relationship manager)?

Community is important and is very hard for big banks to replicate. If you are interested in reading more about community building here are a couple of books worth checking out.

The Indispensable Community: Why Some Brand Communities Thrive When Others Perish [Kindle book] by Richard Millington

People Powered: How Communities Can Supercharge Your Business, Brand, and Teams [Kindle book] by Jono Bacon


In the final Advocate phase, the customer becomes a fan and referrer of new members. The member acts like a built-in marketing representative, singing your praises to other potential members who might benefit from your credit union’s products.

Opportunity: Ask members to provide a link on a referral site like Trustpilot of Google. Make it easy for members to advocate and refer new members. Don’t make them work hard or create friction in the process.


For this to work well, we need to achieve to seemingly polar opposites. One the one hand, we want to provide thoughtful personalized relationships. On the other, we want to ensure consistency across the organization and across time. We want to industrialize genuine relationships with members.

There are three components to reconciling these positions:

  • Process: The nine steps are the backbone of a process that can expanded and adapted to your credit union. Without a process, consistency is hard to achieve and it's difficult to measure the performacne of you actions or identify gaps.

  • Train, train train: Processes don't work well without consistent training and support. What's more, we can't write processes for every single scenario. Often your staff will need to fill in the gaps based on the principles behind your processes and the behaviours they observe in your organization.

  • Reinforce: Reward the behaviours you want to see. We are not rewarding sales, we are rewarding the inputs throughout the customer relationship that contribute most to your credit union's ultimate competitive advantage.

If you are stuck for ideas, as a starting point, just think of things a big bank wouldn't do. Sure they could, but they won’t. This is a great way to differentiate the member experience from that of a customer experience at a big bank.

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