What Are You Talking About at Your Planning Sessions?

What Are You Talking About at Your Planning Sessions?

In a recent Success Magazine article, Robin Sorenson, founder of Firehouse Subs, said, “All conversations were about how we presented the brand. We focused on things we were really passionate about and everything ended up working out.”

Think about that for a minute: every conversation (be it strategic or tactical) went back to the brand. As many experts will tell you, “branding is everything.”

Sorenson elaborated on their brand-centric strategy by saying “It’s really all about our culture and matching our brand.” He noted that in their line of business, competitors can duplicate many things, “but not the Firehouse brand.”

So when it comes to your strategic planning session, what are you talking about at your credit union or bank? Too much time is spent on the financials, past performance, data analysis and tactical plans. While those items certainly have their place if they become the centerpiece or dominant talking points your planning session is not focused on the right thing.

In other words, you can have many conversations during your planning session, but are they the right conversations?

Here are some ways to make sure branding becomes a central part of your planning process:

  • Ask “What is our financial institution about?”—Try answering this question is six words or less (small enough for a business card and large enough for a billboard). Look far and wide.
  • Answer “What makes us different?”—When answering this question, however, you CAN’T use words like “community,” “service,” and “people.” Those words are all over used and do not distinguish you from your competition. Dive deep and get real.
  • Conduct a pre-planning survey about branding—Survey board members, executives and front line staff about the current state of your brand. Get everyone’s feedback.
  • Make branding an agenda item—If it’s not on the list of talking points you can forget about it being discussed. Carve out time for an honest discussion.
  • Ensure marketing has a seat at the planning table—While everyone is involved in branding, marketing tends to drive the bus. If marketing is not involved in the strategic planning process then it’s likely that bus is going off a cliff.

In the planning process, your financial institution does indeed need to talk about everything (loans, service, products, long-range issues, competitor threats, positioning strategy, etc.).

However, if you are not making your brand one of your central discussion items, then you are wasting your time.

Is Your Brand Uncontainable?

Is Your Brand Uncontainable?

Every bank or credit union wants to build a successful brand. But what if you focused on building a financial institution that was “uncontainable?” You can if you read Kip Tindell’s new book Uncontainable. He just happens to be the chairman and CEO of The Container Store and in his new book he shares the secrets of how he and his team have built one of the most successful niche retail store empires.

The book’s subtitle—how passion, commitment and conscious capitalism built a business where everyone thrives—summarizes the book’s concepts pretty well. As banks and credit unions, we must think more like retailers and less like financial institutions. And following the ideas Tindell outlines in his book is a great place to start that transformation.

Much of Uncontainable is spent dissecting The Container Store’s seven Foundation PrinciplesTM . Rather than giving employees a giant policies and procedures manual, The Container Store is guided by seven key tenets. Tindell spends a chapter on each and why they are so important to driving success. Below are three of the seven and how we can apply them.

(1) One Great Person = Three Good PeopleSM

Your growth and brand all start with your people. The Container Store’s hiring philosophy is pretty simple: hire greatness and don’t settle when it comes to your people. As Tindell says, “This is the whole ballgame.” But it is not just a hiring philosophy, it is a pay structure as well. “We’re not advocates of paying mediocre people well, but we’re huge advocates of paying great people well.”

  • Application: Honestly review (and I don’t mean giving a formal evaluation) your current employees and determine if you have good or great people working for you. Determine what your own hiring philosophy is. Many banks and credit unions just want a body in the front line teller or service representative positions. Taking that approach results in mediocrity.

(2) Man in the Desert SellingSM

Selling gets a bad wrap—but not at The Container Store. Tindell eloquently illustrates the story about someone living in an oasis when a water deprived barefoot man shows up shouting “Water, water, water.” Tindell goes on to emphasize that in that scenario you wouldn’t just give the man water. You would offer him food, shelter, clothing (more than just what his immediate need was). He elaborates by saying, “The most important part of Man in the Desert Selling is getting to know the customer well enough to propose a solution.”

  • Application: Make sure your service philosophy emphasizes solution based selling. Remember, service = sales. We tend to separate the two. But in reality, if you are truly serving the consumer, you will offer products and services that make their lives better. Selling is not evil and not a bad thing—especially if you are improving lives.

(3) Intuition Does Not Come to an Unprepared Mind. You Need to Train Before it HappensSM

At The Container Store you get 40 hours of training before you ever reach the sales floor. And those first forty hours are NOT spent on system and H.R. training. Rather you learn their Foundation Principles and what The Container Store is all about. Eventually during your first year as a new employee you receive over 200 hours of training. Tindell includes some powerful quotes from Container Store employees including, “Training is more of a burden or an afterthought at most other companies. The intent in training is so strong at The Container Store it’s not like anywhere else I have ever been.” And “Training is the time to let the culture wash over you.”

Those are just three of the seven Foundation Principles. To learn the rest you’ll have to read Uncontainable, which I highly encourage you to do. Tindell’s writing style is conversational and he tells many captivating stories. My copy is filled with notes and underlines. It is also a great book for a management group to read as a team.

If you want to build your brand and grow your credit union or bank, then read Uncontainable.

Stop Wordsmithing & Start Deciding

Stop Wordsmithing & Start Deciding

Vision statements. Mission statements. Core values. Taglines.

All of the above have two things in common: first, they are just words. And secondly, financial institutions spend far too much time haggling over them to get the meaning “just right.”

Please note that by saying they are “just words” I don’t mean vision, mission and values are not important. Far from it. They are the essence of why you exist and they serve as a valuable tool to differentiate yourself from the hundreds of competitors you have. The also help guide your organization and serve as a compass.

However, in planning sessions or branding workshops boards and executive teams can fall into a few traps with these important statements. For example, watch these potential minefields:

Spending too much time on just the right words

If you are taking hours and hours to craft the perfect statement then you are missing the point. Arguing over “should we have ‘the’ or ‘a’ in this spot,” is a waste of time. Focusing on the big picture is far more important than digging in the weeds. As Rory Rowland sometimes says, you need to employ the GEPO principle, for when it’s “Good Enough, Push On.”

Putting too many words into a statement

When crafting a vision, mission or tagline groupthink can easily dominate the room. To make everyone happy and to include all parties the end result is often a long and flowing statement that means absolutely nothing. Follow the simple rule of keeping your key statements to six words or less. Check out Why Most Vision Statements Fall Short for tips on getting yours just right.

Making your statements generic

If your vision, mission and taglines include words like “community,” “people,” and “service” then you are just like every other financial institution in your area. Have you ever driven down the highway and seen a billboard that says, “Come to our bank—we HATE people and our community.” Everyone seems to love people, love the community and love serving others. Dig deep and look for ways to make your key statements differentiate, resonate and substantiate.

Forgetting it is about living your words

Honestly, it doesn’t matter what words you use when describing your brand if your employees are not living it. You need to spend more time focusing on how your staff delivers on your key statements every single day than you do what those statements actually say. Your staff’s actions trump your executive’s words.

Words do indeed matter. They mean something. And you need to invest time crafting a vision, a mission and a tagline.

However, there comes a point when you need to stop wordsmithing your statements and start deciding what you are actually going to be about and what you are going to live.

Train Like A Successful Retailer & Not A Financial Institution

Train Like A Successful Retailer & Not A Financial Institution

Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits for Highly Effective People, once said, “If you have to cut things out you just cut people; you cut training and development; you kill the goose that lays the golden egg; for a short term period you improve profits. But then you’ve liquidated the human resources; the trust inside the culture and the voice of people in order to have a short term benefit; in the long run you have to live with the consequences of a dead goose.”

When it comes to training at your credit union or bank, are you killing the golden goose? More than likely you are doing a great deal of training. But is it the right training?

Many credit unions and banks start their training by teaching employees about their core system, their policies and their procedures. Can you say “BORING!” By the time they get in front of a consumer, the new employee is drilled on the computer and the system but have no clue how to engage with (or sell) someone one of your products or services.

As financial institutions, we must now think like retailers. That also means training like a retailer rather than like a traditional financial institution (system, policies, procedures, etc.).

Consider these statistics from Forbes:

  • Spending on training increased 15% in 2014
  • Companies invest the most training dollars in leadership training
  • High performing companies spend more in training
  • Companies on the list of “Great Places to Work” offered 66.5 hours of training annually for salaried employees and 53 hours of training for hourly employees

But what about specific retail organizations? What are they doing to train their employees? Here are a few examples:

  • New employees at The Container Store receive almost 300 hours of training their first year (and many hours in subsequent years as well)
  • New Starbucks employees spend their first 20 hours of employment learning all the ins and outs of the Starbucks culture
  • Everyone’s first day of employment at Disney begins with Disney Tradition, where role model cast members and not professional trainers conduct the training
  • Umpqua Bank offers its employees the “World’s Greatest Bank University” where employees receive hundreds of hours of training

So what type of training should your financial institution offer its employees? Consider these options:

  • Brand training—When do you train your staff to your brand? Hint: It needs to be right away. New hires must learn not just your core system but your core values. And if you haven’t trained your current employees on your brand, consider conducting brand training for them as well.
  • Sales & service training—Most of your employees are not natural sales people. Those soft skills (greeting the consumer, asking questions, offering solutions) are vital if you want your sales numbers to increase.
  • One-on-one coaching—Once classroom training is complete, you have to reinforce those skills regularly. Whether a formal trainer offers the coaching or their manager, an employee must receive regular feedback.
  • Product knowledge training—Your employees will not sell what they do not understand. Make sure you are regularly training (and testing) your employees on your products and services.
  • Advanced sales training—The majority of your sales are probably coming from your top 10 or 20 percent of your employees. So why train everyone the same? The most successful financial institutions are now offering advanced sales training for their top performers.
  • Leadership training—John Maxwell once said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” At your financial institution, everything rises and falls on how well your leaders perform. So make sure you are investing in them.

Top performing retailers don’t just grow automatically. They invest in their employees with top-notch training. Are you?

Did Anyone Actually Want a Waffle Taco?

Did Anyone Actually Want a Waffle Taco?

No small degree of consumer research went into Taco Bell’s decision to roll out a line of breakfast menu items. Jumping into the fast food breakfast fracas last year, Taco Bell lobbed a spicy shot over the bows of more established competitors like McDonald’s, Sonic and Burger King.

So, yes, if you now so choose, you can order a Waffle Taco for breakfast. Or an A.M. Crunchwrap. Or even a Grande Scrambler Burrito.

The question is … should you? Or, more precisely, do you want to?

An easy mistake for a company to make is trying to be all things to all people. Rather than identifying a market niche (the thing you’re best at) and a target audience (the type of people you best serve) these misguided attempts try to be a little bit of something to everybody. The results are typically less than spectacular. Like salad flavored Jell-O, purple Ketchup and Coors water.

Taco Bell had a pretty good thing going in the minds of many consumers – cheap, fast, pseudo Mexican food. It was a mainstay of my college years (including way too many “make a run for the border” dormitory jokes). Grape flavored Jell-O, red Ketchup and Coors Beer were working just fine, too. Like those examples, jumping into the breakfast food arena is a potential blunder. Why try to be a breakfast food provider to a massive audience relatively happy with what you’ve already got?

Many banks and credit unions are similarly guilty of being Waffle Tacos. Instead of focusing on that which they do well (fast loan responses, great experiential service, branch network) and a target audience (young parents, factory workers, Gen Y), they water it all down. A little bit of products and service for this, a little bit of products and service for that … ads here, there and everywhere … until it’s all one big, confusing mess. No consumer will take time to sort that out and decide if you’re the best bet for their needs. Rather than try to make sense of your mishmash, they’ll happily head to the competitor that does appeal to their unique needs.

Focus and knowing who you serve best and how to reach them is the answer. Until learning that critical branding lesson, your bank or credit union is about as appealing as a Waffle Taco soaked in Crystal Pepsi.

Smell your bathrooms

Smell your bathrooms

Note: The following is an excerpt from 30 Ideas to Build and Live Your Brand. For a free copy of the complete book, click here.

Everything about your financial institution communicates something about your brand – even how your bathrooms look and smell. Think about it this way. When you are on a road trip, are you selective about where you take your pit stops, or will you stop anywhere?

I realize nobody is going to stop at your financial institution just to use the restroom, but if they don’t trust your bathrooms, they may not trust your ability to handle their money, either.

When Toys R Us was rebranding, it brought in a third party expert to lead the process. One of the first things the consultant did was walk the CEO all the way to the back of the store where the restroom was located and ask if his wife would feel comfortable using that bathroom. Why? Because it’s important to look at these details from the customer’s perspective. Women are the toy retailer’s key demographic. If they won’t use the bathrooms, or more importantly, if they won’t let their kids use the bathrooms, they aren’t going to shop there very often.

We have a client that gave its customers a big piece of wood with a key attached to it when they needed to use the restroom. That screams truck stop, not financial institution. Think about it. If you manage potentially thousands of dollars of someone’s money at your financial institution, don’t they deserve something a little more tactful that doesn’t scream, “I’m going to the bathroom,” to everybody they pass on their way to the restroom? If your bathrooms can’t differentiate your financial institution from a truck stop, how do you expect your brand to differentiate your bank or credit union from your competition?

These may seem like small details, but they matter. Starbucks once did a study on how much money it could save by switching from two-ply toilet paper to one-ply toilet paper. That one seemingly small detail would have saved the company thousands of dollars, but the CEO wouldn’t hear of it. He said everything matters, and he was right.

Do you have cheap, ratty toilet paper in your bathrooms or do you provide your customers with Charmin? Does your bathroom look freshly painted or old and worn? Are your sinks and toilets clean…really clean and not rusty or stained? Do your faucets and fixtures shine? How does your bathroom smell? Have you looked at your bathrooms from a female perspective?

If you are targeting women – the people who manage the finances in the majority of U.S. households, you have to appeal to their standards. Does your bathroom pass the smell test? Do yourself and your brand a favor and smell your restrooms.

For a free copy of 30 Ideas to Build and Live Your Brand, click here.

Ingenuity, Service and Free Coffee: A Brand Doing It Right

Ingenuity, Service and Free Coffee: A Brand Doing It Right

This entry is contributed by Taylor W. Wells, Communications Director with On The Mark Strategies.


Earlier this year I was working with a client on a marketing audit in Wichita, Kansas. To start the day, I headed to a familiar place – Chick-fil-A. Well known for its “my pleasure” consumer engagement tagline, I expected to receive the same service as I do at the Chic-fil-A in my hometown.

I didn’t.

It was even better.

The folks at this particular Chic-fil-A knocked the brand and consumer satisfaction ball out of the park for me. What was the big deal?

  • They greeted me as I walked in (the norm, for Chic-fil-A)
  • Smiles and good eye contact
  • Order taken quickly and efficiently
  • Good food, sparkling-clean restaurant (again, their norm)

Here’s where it gets better. The young man serving me asked if I’d like a free cup of coffee. That set off a bell – I saw a television commercial just that morning advertising their new Free Coffee February. Intrigued, I said “sure,” because, free cup of coffee, right?

Did I get a ratty-looking cup of coffee in a plastic cup? Nope. Suddenly, the courteous young man became a barista. Regular or iced? Any cream (he then named several types available)? Any sugar? How many? In a few moments, I had a custom-made cup of coffee, in my hands, with my name on it.

And … it tasted good. Very good.

I’ve no doubt the amazing customer experience I had while there added to the positive taste of the coffee. And I’m sure Chick-fil-A planned it that way.

So, what are the applications for banks and credit unions? Plenty.

  •  Ingenuity still counts. If Chick-fil-A can take something as simple as a cup of coffee and re-invent it for a consumer in their restaurant, with heavy competition from the folks at Starbucks, then surely your financial institution can morph boring financial products and services into something cool. How? By a-bombing the typical banking experience and offering something better. If you’re not different, you’re just background noise. Do you want to be background noise in a town full of competitors? Didn’t think so.
  • Service still counts. In fact, it counts now more than ever. Honestly, I can get the same cup of coffee elsewhere, cheaper. But customized for me, by name, with a genuine smile? In a clean, inviting atmosphere? The list shrinks with those requirements. Because of the experience at this Chick-fil-A, I will now go out of my way to have coffee there again. Can your bank or credit union say the same thing about repeat consumers?
  • Brand still counts. As a business traveler, I went to this Chick-fil-A to get the same service, food and process I get back home. I wanted the norm, not an adventure. They delivered that (and more) in a positive way. Same seating arrangements, same menu, same uniforms, same greeting, same smiles. All very comforting. All very reassuring. And all well-branded. This wasn’t a rogue shop, it was a well-oiled branding machine. Are all your branch facilities similarly in line? Do consumers get the same look, same service, same engagement in all your branches (including that one way out there in Podunkville)?

Banks and credit unions looking to stand out and improve their consumer engagement experience could do worse than examine the Chick-fil-A model. Free coffee isn’t always the answer, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Are You Rewarding Average?

Are You Rewarding Average?

“At most companies, average performers get an average raise. At Netflix, they get a generous severance package.”
—Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix

Let’s be honest. Many credit unions and banks provide just average service. We say we compete and differentiate on service but the truth is most financial institutions are average at best when it comes to giving knock your socks off, jaw dropping moments.

In a recent post (Marketing Audit Insights Reveal Common Areas of Concern), we noted that one insight from several recent marketing audits revealed the level of consumer service wasn’t as good as what management assumed it was.

Why the average service?

Probably because of the average employees. That may sound harsh but it also may ring true.

Financial institution employees rarely give BAD service. They are not going to cuss out a consumer, make faces at them or roll their eyes during a transaction. It’s rare when someone answers the phone at a credit union or bank with a mean tone.

However, bad service is not the problem. Average service is. If your financial institution is just giving what consumers expect (a pretty low bar) then you are not differentiating yourself from the hundreds of choices consumers have to do their banking. Most consumers see banking as a chore. Which is why your service is so important—if you can make banking fun and a great experience then you distinguish yourself from your competition.

When it comes to rewarding your front-line employees you are probably grading them on something like a one to five scale with three notating as “average.” So if they give “average” service (i.e., people aren’t complaining about them) then you probably give them a 3 or 3.5. But having a bunch of “3s” on your front line means you just have average employees.

And average gets you absolutely nothing.

While the above quote from Netflix’s CEO is striking, please note I’m not advocating you fire all your front-line staff. Rather, you should coach them up or coach them out.

One way to ensure you are not giving just average service is to foster a “wow” environment where you encourage employees to go above and beyond for consumers. For example, ask your staff questions like:

  • “What did you do to wow consumers today?”
  • “What did you do to live our brand today?”
  • “Tell me a story from this week about how you did something unexpected for one of our members/customers.”

As a financial institution you face many challenges: the competition, the economy, the fast changing environment. However, employee complacency—in the form of average employees—is also a potential stumbling block.

Remember, the biggest threats to your brand come from within.


Be Well? How About be Real?

Be Well? How About be Real?

When I need a quick trip to a drugstore to pick up some Advil, a late night prescription or a candy bar I often run by Walgreens. It’s extremely convenient and you can get what you want most of the time.

As part of their branding efforts, employees have recently started saying “be well” after your transaction. It’s catchy and pithy. It also ties to their historical roots that they claim on their site as being “America’s premier pharmacy.”

But is it real? The challenge with that employee brand message is in its execution. For example, sometimes employees say it half heartedly (almost like “I’m sick of saying this, but be well”). Sometimes employees say it with cynicism (almost like “I don’t believe it, but be well”). Sometimes employees say it with a whisper (almost like “please don’t make me say this again, but be well”). And sometimes employees say it with a sincere attitude (almost like “I genuinely want you to be well”).

What are the lessons banks and credit unions can learn from Walgreens and their employee “be well” saying?

The first lesson is simple: be real. Make sure your employees are sincere when talking with customers or members. Nothing turns off consumers more than canned messages and statements. Treat each person uniquely and individually. Because they are. Make sure your employees are having real conversations with your target audiences.

There is also a second lesson: be consistent. Each time I go to Walgreens I receive a different greeting (even though the words are the same). As noted above, how employees uttered “be well” varied with almost every trip. Their employees were all over the board. Make sure from branch to branch your employees are engaging consumers consistently.

Thirdly, have an employee brand message. As hard a time as I am giving Walgreens in this post, the truth is having your employees say a consistent message is a good thing. Think “It’s my pleasure” with Chick Fil-A. For example, at Heart of Louisiana Credit Union they close every transaction with “Thank you for being a part of the heart.” Make sure your brand has a catchy saying consumers might remember.

Messaging and branding are important. So are employees and branding. Combining a brand message with employees is clever but also a trap. If executed correctly, it can add value. If done poorly, it can make you look foolish.

Developing Better Survey Questions for Your Consumers

Developing Better Survey Questions for Your Consumers

The quest for consumer data is on and it’s hotter than ever. Everywhere you turn, someone wants your opinion about something. Whether you’re asked to participate in a telephone survey, an online survey or (they still do those things!?) a paper survey, some company somewhere wants to know what you think about something.

Banks and credit unions are no different. It’s not that seeking data about consumers is a bad thing – far from it. Financial institutions need to know as much as possible about the people they serve in order to retain both wallet and market share. However, as consumers drown in a deluge of survey questions, the same banks and credit unions are also better served by asking better questions. The same old shtick simply won’t do anymore. How satisfied are you about ABC? What do you think about XYZ? These types of questions are passé and, frankly, unlikely to generate the kind of data you can actually utilize.

Having said that, what are examples of better survey questions for your consumers? Following are a few suggestions.

  • Ask deeper questions. Make consumers think. An example from our own question databank is “if XYZ credit union/bank was a car, what kind of a car would it be and why?” It may sound like a gimmicky question, but the responses generated are truly telling. Some consumers use this deeper thinking opportunity to completely unload on their financial institution, referring to it as “a junked-out 1975 Pinto” or “something that is old, ugly it breaks down just when I need it.” Other answers are kinder. Whether kind or not, these types of responses are refreshing, honest and a better indicator of what consumers actually think about your financial institution.
  • Ask direct questions. As noted above, people are hit-up for their opinions all day long and simply don’t have the time for you to beat around the bush. Get right down to the meat of your question. For example, instead of asking “what do you like about our checking accounts?” go more for the jugular with something like “what suggestions do you have for improving the checking accounts at ABC credit union/bank?” Consumers will appreciate the brevity of your question and may also reward this with direct and honest responses.
  • Ask quantifiable questions. Questions that you can boil down into actionable data are desirable. For example, you might ask a question such as “how satisfied are you with the loan options offered?” You can grade on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being totally unsatisfied and ten being totally satisfied. After tabulating the answers, you can do the math and actually come up with a number that reflects what people think about the question you posed. Quantifiable data not only plays well in reports and in the boardroom — it offers a springboard for you to make substantive improvements to your financial institution.

Take a little time now to develop survey questions that are deeper, direct and quantifiable. Your consumers may thank you for it in the form of answers your bank or credit you can actually use in the pursuit of improving your marketing mix.