Credit Union Strategy: Filene, Zig Ziglar and Southwest Airlines are on to Something

Posted on May 28, 2011

Just before boarding leaving the office for a business trip this week, I brought a Filene Research Institute white paper to read.   Entitled “Credit Union Financial Sustainability: A Colloquim at Harvard University” (publication #232, 3/11) the document is a blueprint for credit unions to learn how to compete with their more performance minded competitors in the banking sector.

Being new to the CU industry, I have documented my observations as to why credit unions struggle to compete with their for-profit banking counterparts and the Filene white paper expands on several of the same observations is it lists four traits of sustainably excellent organizations:

(1) Have the stomach to be bad – you can’t be great at everything, so focus on what you do well.  For most credit unions this means service yet their hiring practices aren’t always structured to identify true service champions.  Herb Kelleher (CEO/founder of Southwest Airlines) coined the phrase in the 1970’s that he “hires for attitude, trains for skills” and this is noted by Filene on page 16. (I’ll come back to this point later)

(2 Avoid gratuitous service – the longer credit unions have customers the more steady the drumbeat to give away stuff for free.  For credit unions it becomes a habit with members (“gratuitous service”) .  Filene notes you cannot sustain service excellence when you have too much gratuitous service (p. 18)

(3) Design systems so typical employees can become excellent – design your service delivery systems so they are not dependent upon the person delivering them.  This partially involves who you hire as to ensure consistency.

(4) Teach customers to behave differently – when customers are blocking your path to excellence you have to get them to behave differently.  Great organizations can get customers to change their behavior while also boosting satisfaction.

I had just finished reading the Filene white paper (which includes many more insightful points) when the woman sitting next to me in a window seat asked if she could exit the row to use the restroom.  It is worth noting this was a Southwest Airlines flight and she was a Southwest Airlines employee.  When she came back to her seat she handed me and the guy next to me a drink refill.   Surprised, I looked up at her and said “you didn’t need to do that” and she smiled and replied “my pleasure.”

It struck me at that precise moment that this woman (not on duty), embodied a type of service excellence that simply was part of her DNA.  I then thought back to something Zig Ziglar used to say at my former church in Dallas “it is your attitude not your aptitude, that determines your altitude in life.”

What does Herb Kelleher, Zig Ziglar and Filene know that other organizations may not?  For front-line staff, the skills resume may not be as important as personality/countenance that exhibits a perceptiveness when interacting with people to instinctively anticipate what they need and then provide it.  Finding these type of employees may require a different way to hire — but there are organizations that are getting it right.

Effective credit union strategy is half the battle; having motivated employees to execute it is the real secret.

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