Member Intelligence Group (MIG) recently surveyed members of two mid-sized credit unions in the Midwest regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them and their opinions on how their credit union is responding to the crisis. In this white paper, results of the survey will be presented along with recommendations for credit unions on how to proceed.
In times of crisis, it can be easy for businesses to get lost in their focus on day-to-day operations and “putting out fires” to keep the business moving forward. However, maintaining (and even enhancing) relationship-building efforts with one’s customers is critical during these times to ensure that they stay with the organization.
While the COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for credit unions, financial institutions have faced other emergency situations in the past from which insights and lessons can be drawn. For example, following the Economic Crisis of 2008, consumer confidence in financial institutions fell to a record low in 2012 (Johnson & Peterson, 2014). Following that crisis, it was determined that many financial institutions had, in the twenty years leading up to the crisis, ended up with a depersonalization of their services in an effort to grow their businesses and enhance their online presence (Johnson & Peterson, 2014). For example, the growth of website development and online banking; the interest of financial institutions in real estate investments outside of their own communities (and the resulting re-allocation of staff from frontline service to back office support for real estate initiatives); and the reduction of personal accountability of staff through developments of large call centers all contributed to the resulting depersonalization of services (Johnson & Peterson, 2014). This depersonalization set the stage for enhanced consumer anxiety at the time that the economic crisis hit.
After the crisis, it was recommended that financial institutions refocus on building personal relationships with consumers and invest in employee development and training in an effort to regain trust and reduce financial anxiety during both times of crisis and normalcy (Johnson & Peterson, 2014). Also, a focus on the local community can contribute to this effort (Johnson & Peterson, 2014).
Similarly, businesses involved with data breaches have suffered immense losses due to consumer deflection (Whitler & Farris, 2017). Organizations have learned that it is critical to get ahead of these situations and invest in consumer relationships. Also, when a breach happens, it is important to maintain a focus on consumers and communicate with them directly (Whitler & Farris, 2017).
The COVID-19 situation is distinct from the economic crisis and from data breaches in that financial institutions do not have the same level of responsibility for the problem. However, the current crisis is similar to the others in the sense of the potential for the presence of extreme consumer financial anxiety. Financial anxiety is displayed when individuals, “. . . have an uneasy and unhealthy attitude toward engaging with, and administering their personal finances in an effective way” (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012, p. 93) or through an, “. . . anxious disposition toward cognitive engagement with one’s personal finances” (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012, p. 94-95).
Research has demonstrated that financial anxiety is distinct from other forms of anxiety and from depression and that it often causes a latency in processing of financial information (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012). This is likely related to the fact that financial anxiety frequently manifests itself in similar ways to a phobia whereby individuals involuntarily avoid encountering stimuli that cause them fear and make them feel anxious (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012). Long-term, research has established a strong correlation between debt and mental health problems, and individuals can end up in a debt-mental health problem cycle that manifests itself in an overall “financial melancholia” (Davies, Montgomerie, & Wallin, 2015). Debt is also related to higher overall stress and lower self-esteem (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012). To help reduce consumers’ financial anxiety, it has been suggested that financial knowledge be more accessible and that financial products be more consumer-friendly (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012).
Taking into consideration lessons learned from previous crises, MIG felt it was important for credit unions to assess:
– How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting members
– Members’ awareness of, and opinions on, their credit union’s response to the crisis
– The extent to which their COVID-19 messages are “getting through” to members
– Whether they are successfully building relationships with members
– How they can improve their response to the crisis and help their members
MIG developed a survey to meet the objectives outlined above. Questions centered on how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted members’ level of financial anxiety and work status and on their awareness of, and opinions on, their credit union’s response to the pandemic. There was also a space for respondents to provide open comments or ask for assistance.
Two credit unions volunteered to be the firsts to utilize the survey. Both organizations are mid-sized credit unions in the Midwest located in an area significantly impacted by COVID-19. In late March and early April, the survey was e-mailed to all members 18 years of age and older, and responses were collected for two weeks. Subsequently, data was analyzed and the results were tabulated.
932 unique, usable responses were obtained from the survey. Notably, 52% of respondents are experiencing more financial anxiety as a result of COVID-19. An additional 42% of respondents have not experienced a change in their level of financial anxiety. Thus, for 94% of respondents, at best, they are continuing to feel the same level of financial anxiety as before, and, at worst, that level has increased. Millennials in particular have been impacted: 69% of millennial respondents indicated that they are experiencing more financial anxiety as a result of COVID-19. These results indicate a need for credit unions to do what they can to help members reduce their financial anxiety.
31% of survey respondents indicated that they had either lost their jobs (22%) or had their hours reduced (9%) because of COVID-19. 13% of respondents reported changes to their work environment (they now work from home), and 53% have not experienced work changes (their jobs are the same as before or they did not work before the crisis started and still are not working). The remaining 3% of respondents did not answer that question. Unsurprisingly given their reported financial anxiety, Millennials’ jobs have been impacted the most: 38% have lost their jobs, and 18% have had hours reduced.
With regard to members’ awareness of, and opinions on, credit union response to the pandemic, the biggest opportunities for improvement were in members’ awareness of special assistance programs and in perception that the credit union is proactively seeking to assist members and their families. Specifically, only 70% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I am aware of special assistance programs that may be available to me through the credit union,” and 63% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “The credit union has proactively sought to help me and my family through this crisis.” The remaining members gave neutral or negative responses to these questions.
These gaps in awareness and perception were evident in the open comments as well. Comments such as “Any loans available to help?” and “Does the credit union have any plans to help address concerns with high interest rates?” were common. Due to comments regarding concern over making loan payments, paying fees, and having high interest rates, as well as other comments about job loss and changing circumstances, it was clear that many members are experiencing financial anxiety. One example is a member who said, “I am worried that in the next few weeks I will be laid off. I am extremely concerned about keeping up with a credit card payment.” Members are focused on their individual circumstances and are experiencing related financial anxiety.
Another relevant finding from the open comments is that members expressed appreciation that the credit union sent out the survey and asked for their feedback. Comments included remarks such as, “Thank you for asking how you can help,” “Thank you for reaching out,” and “We just want to say THANK YOU for reaching out to your members! Proud to be a long standing member.” It was also evident that it is rare for financial institutions to ask customers or members about their COVID-19 response. For example, a member indicated that s/he has accounts at two banks and then said, “Thanks for asking . . . you are the first.” It was clearly meaningful to members to be asked their opinion.
Discussion and Recommendations
Given lessons learned from previous crises as well as what credit union members are experiencing now, credit unions would be wise to keep the following in mind:
1) A significant number of members are likely experiencing job loss or reduction. Instead of waiting for them to ask for assistance, get ahead of this and institute programs to help such as loan deferrals and interest reduction.
2) In times of crisis, it is almost impossible to over-communicate. Members are experiencing financial anxiety which may lead to a latency in processing of financial information (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012). The credit union involved in this study has information regarding loan deferral and other programs prominently placed on its website homepage and has sent e-mails to members regarding programs the organization has put in place. However, this study demonstrates that the information is not “getting through” to a significant number of members. Consumers are receiving messages from countless organizations regarding COVID-19 and may not focus on specifics if they do not happen to receive a message at the exact moment they are ready to act. Also, they may be involuntarily avoiding financial-related stimuli that make them anxious (Shapiro & Burchell, 2012). Credit unions are advised to consider including a detailed communication schedule in their COVID-19 response plan and to ensure that marketing and communications staff lead this effort, as they are the experts in this area. Part of this plan should include weekly communications to members directly from the CEO.
3) Asking goes a long way with members. Survey respondents indicated appreciation that the credit union took the time to ask their opinions regarding the organization’s COVID-19 response. While some members of staff may express concern about inundating members with another e-mail, again, it is nearly impossible to over-communicate, and of all the messages members may be receiving, a request for their feedback is not the one to cut!
4) Wherever possible, ensure that communications are personalized. Messages should convey empathy and clearly lay out how members can receive personalized attention and help. Personalization can go a long way in long-term relationship building and make both the credit union and its members in a better position to deal with future crises (Johnson & Peterson, 2014).
5) It is important to strengthen relationships with members and connect to the local community in good times as well as bad. Build in systems to regularly ask for their feedback and deliver personalized service and communications. Engage members in your organization by asking them to participate in quantitative and qualitative research.
In sum, while credit union leadership is understandably busy with day-to-day operational issues during this time of crisis, it is important to pause and ensure that members’ voices are heard. Take the time to ask, take the time to listen, and take the time to communicate through personalized expressions of care.
White Paper by Dr. Katie Swanson, VP of Consumer Insight, Member Intelligence Group
For more ideas on ways you can incorporate member feedback and research into your business, contact Katie Swanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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