Even before the pandemic upended financial markets worldwide, there was a sense that the financial services industry might have been reaching a tipping point. The long recovery from the Great Recession seemed to be cresting. Consumer confidence may have been growing, but trust in financial institutions continued to be poor. For credit unions in particular, growth had slowed from 4.2% in April 2018 to 2.7% by early this year, and while improving the member experience was a perennial goal, it was usually defined by and improved through in-person experiences, rather than tools and technology. This left the category vulnerable to fintech upstarts that offered a combination of friendliness and ease.

Enter the coronavirus and its related crises: millions unemployed or facing job insecurity, more loan and credit card payments missed as stimulus money dried up and time wore on, greatly restricted travel and spending. The pandemic has also disproportionately affected certain segments of the population and widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

In many ways, credit unions are well positioned to help both those who are struggling and those who are thriving in these unusual times. On the one hand there’s refinancing, low-interest-rate credit cards and special product offerings, such as job loss protection on mortgages. On the other, there’s historically low mortgage rates for those seeking bigger houses in the suburbs and creative credit card rewards for those looking to maximize the benefits of their new spending habits. And, as we work toward recovery, there may be greater opportunity for savings and certificate products as people in both categories recognize the importance of a safety net.

As both groups look for greater reassurance that their financial service providers will be there for them, credit unions have the opportunity to increase trust and strengthen member connections if they can meet members where they are and if they can finally deliver on that improved experience.


Meeting members where they are

The branch visit was already becoming a thing of that past. Combine that with the 73% of US adults in an April 2020 survey conducted by The Harris Poll who said they were more likely to use digital banking and digital payments during the pandemic and you’ll see how cross selling needs to be happening outside of banking hours and bank statements.

Digital is the place to be. eMarketer has predicted that digital spending in the financial services industry will grow 9.7% this year to reach $19.62 billion and that financial services will be the second biggest spender in this category. Mobile, display and search will all be up across the board as people spend even more time on their computers and phones.

Tools and dashboards that help members track and predict savings, spending and payment plans can help reassure them and give them better insight into their finances. But support does not need to be complicated or expensive to provide — think pre-recorded online tutorials or regular financial education presentations on Zoom around financial education topics.

E-mail has also seen a resurgence — not as a catchall for scattershot promotions, but as a data-driven way to target real-time needs in a personalized way. eConsultancy frames this approach in terms of a “modern marketing mindset” that includes “empathy, curiosity and adaptability” on the part of marketers. Thinking beyond the core cards, cars and castles product offerings to include related services like free financial counseling and debt management positions the organization as part of the solution rather than part of the problem during unpredictable times.


The improved experience

Which brings us to what is probably credit unions’ biggest strength in this pandemic world: their connection to the community. Brands that have strong values and show an ability to live their purpose during difficult times are more resilient and better performers over time. And consumers — particularly those in the Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z age groups — will be aware of and loyal to brands that have a strong corporate giving culture or show empathy with customers during tough times.

The “people helping people” mantra of credit unions can shine through as credit unions help members and businesses recover through grants and loans and work to make a difference at a local level, where the impact is felt and understood. Mintel’s Trend Driver Surroundings data shows that nearly 70% of consumers try to buy from local companies where possible. So credit unions that reach out to support and highlight other local businesses on social media can enjoy the halo effect of being a good neighbor.

By combining personal, timely products and services along with good works in the community, credit unions can grow and strengthen member relationships at a pivotal time in a way that is true to their mission.