Maybe it's time to ditch the stick and grab the club.

Carrot or stick? I prefer a club.

Everybody knows that a carrot is the reward for doing something right, and the stick is the punishment for when you don’t. Well, banks have typically used sticks instead of carrots to get people to act in a certain way, and lately, some credit unions have followed their lead. Instead of enticing people with carrots, they seem to be beating people with fees.

But that tactic will only drive people away. After all, a fee never feels fair to the recipient. Just ask anybody that doesn’t work at a financial institution:

A fee to withdraw MY money from an ATM? That’s not fair. A fee to get a paper statement telling me how much of MY money you are holding? Really? A fee to use my debit card with a PIN instead of a signature? Wait a minute, weren’t you the ones that taught me to use my PIN in the first place? I overdrew my checking by $3 and you charged me $30? Now that really ticks me off!

Yes, I know that credit unions are getting squeezed in every direction. Your executive team has likely decided to bundle profitable products to offset the costs of non-profitable products (such as requiring a member to keep a certain loan or credit card balance), or they have reluctantly decided to charge fees whenever they can in order to pay for all those products that are the “antes” to play the game (home banking, bill pay, free checking, etc.) But fees are a form of punishment, so every time your member takes a wrong step, they get hit.

Which makes me wonder –

Why are credit unions relying on a stick when they could use a club?

Of course I’m referring to the social group meaning, not an even larger stick. While credit unions continue to mimic banks, I believe they really should be copying clubs. After all, according to Wikipedia a club is “an association of two or more people united by a common interest or goal” and they have existed since the ancient Greeks. Some clubs are purely social, others are political or athletic, some professional, and some very exclusive, but every club exists for its members and provides something they all want.

Doesn’t that sound like your credit union? After all, membership in a credit union is an amazing thing. Not only do you get access to, and a better deal on, every financial product you would ever need, but you also get a vote in how the CU is managed, and no money is lost to outside investors.

Membership also means exclusivity.

By changing the way people think about your credit union, from just another financial provider to a much superior alternative, you can change the whole game. No longer are you just another FI, you are the preferred one. You are the insider’s secret that members get to share with their friends. Only members get these insider deals. Only members have access to the benefits of the group.

And, like any other club, you have to pay to be a part of it.

Start charging for membership.

What would happen if you instead sold people on the idea that membership in your credit union is an amazingly great deal, a deal worth paying $XX a year in order to belong?

Not only would you bring in much needed cash (a bonus to the bottom line), but you would also get the opportunity to explain all the benefits of belonging to your credit union (a great way to cross sell products), get rid of bothersome fees and keep things like free checking (big differentiators from the banks), and start to build a sense of pride – a community of people that are all smart enough to know a better deal when they see one (which is pure branding gold).

Yes, it would require you to improve and communicate the value of each and every product and offer you make, but you should be doing that already. And yes, you might lose a few long-time members that use you for certificates – but those probably aren’t profitable members. And yes, it would take time and transparency to explain to your members how much these products cost and why you are moving to this model. But changing the public’s perspective that credit unions are a superior alternative? Definitely worth the effort.

For decades credit unions have been looking for a way to stand out from the competition.

Maybe it’s time to ditch the stick and grab the club.

Kent Dicken

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