Four Questions To Ask Your Next Strategic Planning Facilitator

Four Questions To Ask Your Next Strategic Planning Facilitator

When strategically planning your financial institution’s future, credit unions and banks often bring in outside facilitators to help them. It is too difficult to navigate potential pitfalls and you never want one person to dominate the meeting. There is just something magical about having an outside perspective help you facilitate your strategic planning process.

However, successful planning is not just having anyone facilitate your session. Successful planning is having the right person that matches your unique situation.

Many times, a potential partner will ask you several exploratory questions to learn more about your institution. It’s best if you turn the tables and ask them some questions as well. However, rather than focusing on traditional inquiries like price and testimonials, you should make some deeper level queries.

Here are four questions you should ask any potential strategic planning facilitator:

  1. What book are you currently reading?—This quickly tells you if they are spending time learning. You want a facilitator who is familiar with current business models and strategies. You can also follow-up by asking what blogs they consistently read. If the stumble on these questions or if they throw out books from 10 years ago, that’s a red flag. A great facilitator is a reader.
  1. What trends are seeing you in financial services?—You want an up-to-date partner that is going to challenge and push you. A strategic planning facilitator (especially for credit unions and banks) should know what is happening in our industry. If they answer that trend question with “less physical branches and more digital” then that’s a red flag because everyone knows that trend and it’s been around for years. A great facilitator knows the trends.
  1. When was there a time when your facilitation process didn’t work & why?—Everyone knows and brags about their successes. That’s easy. But ask the reverse by inquiring about a failing situation. And getting to the deeper level “why” helps understand if they blame others or if they learned from a challenging time. Asking this question also helps see if they are a good match for your current situation. A great facilitator is not perfect.
  2. What is unique about your planning process?—Let’s be honest: conducting strategic planning sessions can get boring at times. Especially if you are doing the same things over and over again (like the SWOT analysis—which you should throw out!). Ideally, you want a facilitator that uses unique and different exercises. For example, we developed the trademarked Five Star Credit Union Analysis. We also always start with some type of strategic planning game or exercise to get participants up and moving. A great facilitator is different.

If you want your strategic planning process to be the best then you have to have the best facilitator. Finding that right match means not just answering their questions but asking your own.

Your Brand is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link

Your Brand is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link

by Colleen Cormier, Account Executive for On The Mark Strategies

“You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” I never understood this saying until recently. As far as I was concerned, the strong members of your group could compensate for the weaker ones, as long as the weak members were outnumbered. It doesn’t work that way.

My son’s soccer team recently merged with another team because neither had enough players to make a roster. The two halves of the teams live in different cities, hold separate practices and train with different coaches who have different coaching philosophies. Our half of the team took first place four consecutive seasons. The other team was always toward the bottom of the pack. Combined, we’re at the bottom of the pack.

Financial institutions most likely relate to this, because they usually have teams of employees at different branch locations with managers who manage differently. Do any of those managers exercise business practices that contradict your brand? Those are your weak links, or brand gaps. Even if it’s only one manager at one location, that branch weakens the overall strength of your brand.

Following are a few suggestions to strengthen or repair your weak links:

Brand training

Staff buy-in is critical to your brand’s success. That starts with brand training. We conduct brand training for every branding client we work with, because it’s so important. Brand training explains what branding is, how it impacts your credit union and how employees must live the brand in their jobs daily. It gets everyone on the same page and excited about your brand promise to customers or members. Repeat it regularly and be sure every new employee experiences it. If you have to take the training to certain locations and deliver it multiple times, do it. Your brand depends on it.

Brand Leadership

Every executive at your financial institution must lead the brand. They must be living examples of the culture and values that define your brand. If your brand is friendly, say hi to employees on the elevator or in the hallway. Learn their names. Smile. Employees tend to imitate whatever behaviors your executives exhibit – positive or negative.

Brand Enforcement

Your brand is not just your logo or your dress code or the framed values hanging on the wall. Those are all pieces of your brand, which encompasses everything about your financial institution. It is a way of life for your employees on the job, and it needs to be enforced. The marketing department often polices how your logo is used and what branches look like, but every manager is responsible for monitoring his or her employees. You want all employees to get on board with your brand, and hopefully with adequate training and leadership (and sometimes discipline) they will. Those who refuse are no longer a fit for your organization. They are your weak links and should seek employment elsewhere.

Banking is a competitive industry in which differentiation is already a challenge. You cannot afford weak links. That doesn’t mean every employee is perfect all the time. It means they embrace the brand, try every day to live the brand and help your customers or members grow to love your brand.

Great Leaders Appreciate Their Employees

Great Leaders Appreciate Their Employees

This is the first post in a series about qualities that define great leaders and how you can live those qualities in the workplace.

by Colleen Cormier, Account Executive for On The Mark Strategies

A friend of mine was reminiscing recently about a former “boss” of hers who always made her staff feel appreciated. It was obvious by my friend’s facial expressions and the tone of her voice that she had a great deal of respect and gratitude for this supervisor, even so many years later.

“She would leave little Post-it notes on our desks that said ‘good job’ or ‘thank you’ for doing something that was already part of our job,” my friend said. “Then all year long, she would keep a record about those things and recognize us at the end of the year. I never felt more appreciated than I did when I worked with her.”

Appreciation in the workplace matters. For many people, appreciation is a basic human need. Your employees spend more time at work than they do with their families Monday through Friday. They want to feel like their time away from home makes a difference.

Appreciation also impacts your bottom line. The Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine and Global News (among others) all report that a “bad boss” is the number one reason why employees quit their jobs. According to a report published by Bersin by Deloitte, companies lose an average of $100,000 for every employee who leaves. Interim reduction in labor costs, lost productivity, cost per-hire and the first year of orientation and training all factor into that cost. You also have to consider potential loss in client relationships and the cost of the knowledge walking out your door. That’s significant for something within the company’s control.

Appreciation and recognition do not have to cost a lot of money or take a great deal of time. Here are some easy and inexpensive ways to make your employees feel appreciated.

Say Thank You

It doesn’t get much easier than this. When an employee reaches a work goal or does something notable, say thank you or congratulations. Write them a note and leave it on their desk. Recognize them in a team meeting or team e-mail. Fill their cubicle with balloons. Make sure to do it in a timely manner before the moment has passed.

Feed Them

When your team reaches a goal, order pizza and celebrate their accomplishments. Surprise them with morning donuts or breakfast tacos. Buy (or make) a congratulations cake. In addition to recognizing them, you are a creating good memories by giving your team a chance to gather and celebrate.

Reward Them

Keep a stash of small gift cards ($5 to $10) to places your employees enjoy eating or shopping and reward them periodically for meeting a goal or going above and beyond. Or, give them special tokens they can save up for larger rewards, like a half day off work. Who doesn’t love receiving a gift?

Appreciation matters. Great leaders appreciate their employees.

How to Avoid a United Airlines Size Brand Scandal

How to Avoid a United Airlines Size Brand Scandal

By now, people around the world have either seen or heard about the recent viral video of authorities dragging a passenger off a United Airlines flight. The passenger wasn’t being unruly (until authorities began man handling him). He wasn’t breaking the law. He was the victim of a computer algorithm that “randomly” selected him to leave the plane. The airline needed four seats to fly crew members to a destination where they had to work the next day. Only three passengers volunteered their seats. United needed one more. They chose to handle it by pulling a passenger off the flight kicking and screaming (literally). Needless to say, it was handled badly, and United is already paying for it.

How can your financial institution avoid a brand scandal of this magnitude?

Plan better

A financial institution’s failure to plan adequately is not the customer’s problem. It shouldn’t be anyway. United not having enough seats for its scheduled employees is about the equivalent of a financial institution not having enough money to accommodate withdrawals. It should never happen. Whatever contingencies you have in place for such a time should focus on inconveniencing the financial institution – not the customer or member.

Understand the situation before you comment on it

United CEO Oscar Munoz did the right thing by publicly apologizing the following day for the way the airline handled the situation. Where he failed was writing a letter telling employees the exact opposite. He applauded them for following procedures and handling a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger.

Clearly, Mr. Munoz did not understand why the passenger was belligerent until after he saw the viral video. And newsflash to Mr. Munoz: Nothing in writing is guaranteed to remain confidential, especially when you send it to thousands of employees who may not agree with your stance. While the CEO changed his attitude after the video went viral, it was too late. His credibility was already in question and so was the airline’s integrity.

Always apologize when your financial institution makes a mistake. Do not, however, put in writing words that will come back to haunt you because you failed to understand the full scope of the scandal before you spoke.

Train and empower employees to make better decisions

I don’t know the value of the voucher offered to the three passengers who voluntarily gave up their seats, but I’m willing to bet a fourth person would have come forward for the right price. The same holds true for your customers or members. Offer a valuable solution when a problem arises, even if you have to be creative or lose a little bit of money.

Even $1,000 or more would have cost the airline less than it stands to lose from this scandal. Stock prices dropped relatively quickly, and United typically doesn’t have the cheapest rates to begin with. Customers won’t have a hard time choosing another airline that doesn’t bully its passengers.

Most likely, United will recover from this scandal eventually. The question is, how much will it lose in the meantime for a situation that could have been avoided with better planning, communication and decision making?

Strategic Planning Lessons from Baseball

Strategic Planning Lessons from Baseball

It’s early spring, which means trees are leafing-out, birds are singing and baseball has returned to the land. Regardless of your favorite team, there are plenty of lessons that the great game of baseball lends to life and business, including strategic planning.

You must never stop evolving. Baseball teams evolve regularly, pulling up players from the minor leagues, putting players on the disabled list, making trades and changing positions. It’s a fluid game and requires great adaptability. Your bank or credit union strategic plan must be approached in the same way. If you are simply rubber-stamping the same plan (or a version thereof) every year, you’ve stopped evolving and are in danger of losing the game.

Relationships matter. Much like a bank or credit union CEO, a baseball team is captained by its manager. However, that manager rarely makes decisions independent of his support staff. A good manager will listen to what hitting and pitching coaches are saying and how big-picture decisions can impact the rest of the team, both at a game-by-game level and over the course of the season. Similarly, every decision made at your strategic planning session will, in some way, impact every department. It doesn’t matter if it is viewed primarily as a “marketing decision,” “operational decision,” or “IT decision,” its ramifications will impact every employee in every department, some level. Keep this in mind when developing your strategic plan.

Put players where they can succeed. A baseball team wouldn’t win many games if it forced its star pitcher to play catcher. This simply isn’t capitalizing on his inherent strengths and is a waste of both talent and resources. Your bank or credit union, through its strategic plan, must also recognize the same thing applies to your employees. Every staff member has a unique set of skills and talents that can lead to a better financial institution for your consumers. Allow your strategic plan the flexibility to recognize this and plug in the right employee in the right role.

Just as an umpire roars “play ball!” to start a game, your bank or credit union strategic plan is the kick-off to the next several years of development. By learning that you must always evolve, relationships matter and how to position employees where they can best succeed, you increase your chances of capitalizing on that development.

Creating an Immersive Brand Experience

Creating an Immersive Brand Experience

One of the most important ways banks and credit unions can distinguish themselves in a sea of competitors is by involving consumers in an immersive brand experience from their first point of contact.

When trying to wrap your mind around the concept of an immersive brand experience, one of the great examples is Disney World. From the moment you walk into the park (and even before) you are completely submerged within the brand experience designed meticulously by Disney. Another example is Medieval Times. From the exterior of the castle to the lowering of the drawbridge and all the jousting and sword-fighting within, a trip to Medieval Times is about as authentic a (theatrical) trip back in time can be.

A fair push-back to these examples can sound something like “You’re talking about Disney World and Medieval Times — places that promote and provide supercool experiences. At our bank/credit union, were talking about checking accounts and loans — pretty dry fare.”

Sure, the inside of your bank or credit union probably lacks talking mice and jousting knights, but the principles of brand immersion still apply. To be a memorable financial institution, one that gives consumers reason to come back again and again, you must create and then adhere to a set of brand standards that guide every consumer interaction.

This is best accomplished by a deep-dive brand examination that includes mapping out the journey of your consumers, whether they come to you in person, on the telephone, via email or any other point of interaction (such as social media). You are ensuring that at every point of contact (and every branch facility or contact center you have) your consumers receive the same set of service standards.

This repetition of the brand immersion experience, when repeated consistently and well, leaves an indelible mark in the minds of your consumers – that your bank/credit union is the place to go, the place that understands them, the place best suited for their financial products and services. That’s one of the reasons places like Disney World and Medieval Times can charge the prices they do for admission. Sure, there’s plenty of places to take the family for food and entertainment that are a lot cheaper. But you’re buying into the brand immersion and expressing a lifestyle choice that says something about you as a consumer.

The same thing applies to a bank or credit union. And it doesn’t matter that we’re talking safe deposit boxes and savings accounts. Brand immersion, when done well, works the same for any retail operation. How well does your bank or credit union approach brand immersion to differentiate itself from the competition?

Would Your Brand Survive the Blind Taste Test?

Would Your Brand Survive the Blind Taste Test?

In that Golden Age known as the 1980s, the American public had to endure not only a Cold War with the Soviet Union but also a Cola War pitting Coca-Cola against PepsiCo. The Cold War employed multiple marketing and advertising campaigns to win the attention of consumers.

As part of the Cola Wars, Pepsi started showing consumers conducting blind taste tests (yes, actually blindfolded, taking sips of both Pepsi and Coke and then describing which one they enjoyed more) dubbed the “Pepsi Challenge.” Could your bank or credit union brands survive a similar blind taste test when it comes to your brand?

Here are some key indicators of brand strength and what your brand must accomplish in order to win in the saturated financial products and services marketplace (note: these are sometimes referred to as the “Three R’s of Branding”).

Reach: To succeed, your brand must have reach. That is to say, it must impact a certain number of people, depending on your marketplace, goals and competition, in order to survive. Reach is driven in large part by marketing and advertising (both traditional and nontraditional) and positive consumer word-of-mouth. Does your brand have reach?

Relevance: To succeed, your brand must have relevance. As noted above, there’s plenty of choice out there for consumers when it comes to financial products and services. Relevance is essentially a fancy way is asking the question “does our brand actually matter to the consumer?” Does your brand promote similar cultural values, norms and awareness that matter to your consumers? A more relevant brand is also a brand with which consumers are typically more engaged and, as a byproduct, more likely with which to interact and share their business. Does your brand have relevance?

Resonance: To succeed, your brand must have resonance. Resonance speaks more directly to the degree of engagement and targeted consumer has with a brand’s content. It also has a great deal to do with whether or not they share that brand message with their friends and family. Resonance is deeply connected to relevance; however, resonance simply cannot exist unless relevance is firmly rooted in the first place. Resonance requires that consumers identify at some level with your brand and then, critically, decide to elevate that identity into a relationship. Does your brand have resonance?

If your consumers (or potential consumers) took part in a blind taste test with your brand, could they identify it from the competition? Key branding elements like reach, relevance and resonance can help your bank or credit union win its own version of the Cola War and capture brand prominence for years to come.

Don’t Fall For Fake Strategy

Don’t Fall For Fake Strategy

Fake news is certainly “in the news” these days. Whether it’s a false Facebook story, a weird conspiracy theory or even political punditry, fake stories seem to abound. According to Wikipedia, fake news websites “deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation purporting to be real news—often using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect….fake news sites seek to mislead.”

While “fake news” is certainly causing its fair share of problems, fake strategy is even worse.

What exactly is fake strategy? It’s falling into the trap of believing something is strategic when in fact it is just the same tactics you’ve done in the past.

How can you avoid fake strategy? Here are three tests you can give any strategic initiative to help determine if it is an authentic solution:

  • Is the strategy generic or unique?—If you can put another financial institution’s logo over yours on your strategic plan and no one would know the difference, then your plan is just like everyone else’s. And that’s a problem. Every single credit union or bank this year is doing strategic planning (or they better be!). Terms like “grow loans,” “increase services per household” and “improve operational efficiency” are going to be used. But what is truly different about your plan? What are you going to do strategically that no one else is? Don’t fall for the generic strategy trap.
  • Does the strategy solve problems or create them?—Strategy is about solutions. You know your credit union or bank have them: “issues.” Things that just won’t go away. What are top three challenges your financial institution is currently facing? They could be a lack of innovative technology, an unengaged staff, underperforming branches, or a myriad of other items. But if your executive team is not directly facing those items then you have an avoidance mindset (which is a problem in and of itself). Don’t’ fall for the “everything is fine” strategy trap.
  • Is the strategy thinking huge or setting the bar too low?—We all want successful strategic plans. So when it comes to the time in a strategic planning session where goals and objectives are set it’s easy to make sure our numbers are attainable. But if you aim for average or moderate growth, that’s exactly what you’ll hit. And who wants to be average? There should be an element of aggressiveness to your strategy and your numbers. Push. Dare. Stretch. Don’t fall for the “easy numbers” strategy trap.

A real strategy rather than a fake one involves uniqueness, solutions and stretching. In your next planning session, make sure your strategy has those elements. Otherwise, you might have fallen for a fake strategy.

If Your Bank or Credit Union is Comfortable, That’s a Bad Sign

If Your Bank or Credit Union is Comfortable, That’s a Bad Sign

It’s all too easy to become overly-accustomed to the rigmarole of the daily grind. This is not unique to banks and credit unions. It applies to pretty much every walk of life. Emails, voicemails, meetings, travel, social media, etc. Anybody — indeed, any retail entity — can fall victim to complacency.

If your bank or credit union is comfortable, that’s a bad sign. That means that you are more than likely complacent with the way things are. If the dizzying rate of change in how consumers handle their personal and business financial products and services is any indication, we can ill-afford to allow this type of complacency in our financial institutions.

For example, when’s the last time you felt challenged by a competitor? When’s the last time you analyzed your core products and service offers? When’s the last time you had a true outsider perspective on the way you advertise and work with your consumers?

If you’re having a hard time answering any of these questions, it’s a good time to consider a marketing audit. Marketing audits delve deeply into the cultural DNA of your financial institution and help analyze an enormous amount of data, from your collateral marketing materials to how your competitors treat consumers to key demographic information about your marketplace.

A marketing audit also offers a wealth of data, both strategic and tactical, that your bank or credit union can then use to fine-tune its approach to financial products and services. This offers a treasure-trove of actionable business intelligence.

If your bank or credit union is comfortable, it’s definitely time to analyze your marketplace position. Being too comfortable can, in certain situations, be a sign of sluggishness and unresponsiveness to change. The hyper-saturated financial services and products marketplace simply does not allow for this kind of complacency. A marketing audit can help combat that.

Three Signs Your Strategic Plan Is In Trouble

Three Signs Your Strategic Plan Is In Trouble

If you’re like most other banks and credit unions, you invest a great deal of time, energy and resources in your strategic planning session. And this makes sense. After all, you are committing your financial institution to a particular course of action over a specified time frame (typically, 3 to 5 years).

You have the strategic planning meeting, everyone contributes his or her own ideas and thoughts, maybe a little “cussing and discussing” goes on (not necessarily a bad thing) and, bingo — you have a strategic plan. But how can you tell after the actual session when your strategic plan is in trouble?

Consider the three following “trouble indicators” for your strategic plan.

One — after completion, your strategic plan sits on the shelf for several months. Initial action on your strategic plan after the planning session is critical. This is prime time momentum that you risk losing if everyone goes back to his or her daily routine after the session. Work hard to ensure your team recommits itself to the strategic plan on a regular basis and doesn’t lose the enthusiasm of the session itself.

Two – subsequent strategic planning review meetings are highlighted by the words “we’re still working on that,” “we’re still gathering information” or “this item is still TBD.” You obviously cannot complete all your strategic initiatives in the first quarter (or even year) after your planning session. But delaying for the sake of delaying is deadly for your plan. Use your strategic planning review meetings to highlight concrete achievements made towards your state’s strategic goals.

Three — turnover that impacts key drivers of your strategic plan. Turnover is going to happen, and there’s not too much we can generally do about it. But if you notice the turnover affects key drivers of your strategic plan (in other words, the primary people responsible for pushing it forward) it’s time to take a look at revising the plan. You may need to assign new people to certain strategic planning initiatives or consider shifting the timeframe if a change in personnel leaves the plan shorthanded.

Banks and credit unions enter the strategic planning process with the best intentions. However, the well-known old adage tells us where best intentions generally lead. By taking a look at a few simple strategic planning “trouble indicators,” you can begin to approach a strategic plan from a different angle that empowers it to overcome potential future challenges.

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