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Small business owners' plea to credit unions: earn my business.

When it comes to serving the needs of busy small business owners, some credit unions are having a hard time keeping up with their bank competitors in key areas.

Among them: not having convenient branch locations, a lack of expertise on staff and not offering robust online banking services, according to feedback shared by a focus group comprised of 10 business owners, CEOs, and accountants with annual sales ranging from $1 million to $10 million.

The focus group was coordinated by a market research firm for CU Business Group in Portland, Ore., the business services CUSO said.

Participants were asked about their relationship with their current financial institution, the products and services that were most important to them, and their perception of credit unions.

"One of the key findings was credit unions were not stepping up in both letting business owners know what they were capable of offering and not educating them on how they can compete with big banks," said James Weaver, chief operating officer of Consumer Opinion Services, a Seattle-based research group, who served as moderator of the focus group.

Branch location turned out to be a must-have for both owners and their businesses' employees, Weaver said. Having convenient locations was critical, particularly for staff at small to midsize firms who rely on being able to cash their checks in person without having to pay fees, he added.

Another important area expressed among the focus group participants was having the right type of expertise, Weaver noted. This was especially true for those that had ongoing relationships with banking individuals that spanned several years.

"They pay attention to the talent. The expertise of people handling business at credit unions was important to them," Weaver said. "They like it when someone has 20 years of experience."

Some of the respondents said credit unions haven't marketed their business services to them, while they get contacted by larger banks on a regular basis, according to CUBG.

"Just call me and take me to lunch," said one participant. "I never have been contacted by a credit union so why would I even consider them?"

Indeed, the two toughest hurdles for credit unions are engaging business owners and getting in front of them, said Ted Rosen, president of Expert Business Development LLC, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based financial service management consultation firm. He attended the viewing of the focus group's session, which was featured at CU Business Group's recent business services conference in Portland.

"The challenge is 'how do I follow up.' There's a simple concept called respectful persistence. While you always want to be respectful and not badger, there's always a way to follow up," said Rosen, whose firm links small businesses with credit unions and community banks.

That engagement is critical because all of the focus group's participants didn't even consider credit unions when it came to meeting their financial needs, said Larry Middleman, president/CEO of CU Business Group, which serves more than 430 credit unions in 44 states.

"It didn't even surprise me because some credit unions don't even have the product suite," Middleman noted. "Credit unions were barely, if at all, on their minds."

Rosen said one of the biggest mistakes credit unions make when it comes to courting small businesses is approaching them with a retail banking focus. In that world, people traditionally come through the branch door, respond to ads or employees will become members because the companies they work for are select employee groups.

"In the world of business services, these are businesses where the entrepreneur is working 70 hours a week, they're balancing a lot of balls in the air," Rosen explained. "You're not going to expect them to find you through an ad or direct mail. One way is to get them on the phone. It's often just an awareness issue--so many say they just didn't know credit unions offered business services."

Size perception was an issue. One participant said using a national bank makes his business seem larger and more sophisticated, while using a credit union would make his clients think he was a smaller organization, according to CUBG. In particular, he shared that he didn't believe credit unions could handle his international banking needs.

Interestingly, all of the focus group participants were members of credit unions, Weaver pointed out.

"One of the key comments was 'I'm in your credit union every day, every week. But you're not trying to win my business on the business services side. Take me to lunch, do something to win me over,'" he said.

Across the board, the focus group agreed that online banking was the product or service that was most important to them, which includes everything from checking balances and transferring funds to remote deposit capture, cash management and ACH origination, according to CUBG. Middleman said those products are still very exotic to some credit unions.

Despite the voids that may be keeping small businesses away, credit unions still have an edge over banks that can help fill the spaces. All of the focus group participants expressed admiration for their friendly service, Rosen said.

"What's interesting is there's this wonderful opportunity for them to capitalize on the market," he offered. "Big banks have done a wonderful job of shooting themselves in the foot, which is always good for credit unions."

The sale of questionable derivatives and a scourge of subprime lending that eventually contributed to the Great Recession were primarily led by some of the nation's largest banks, Rosen said. Middleman said focus group feedback was consistent with what he's heard in the past.

"This is very eye-opening. Many credit unions are considering expanded business services and this session (provided) excellent direction for what is needed to serve larger businesses," Middleman said. "These will be some of the most profitable relationships at the credit union and it is imperative that we know how what it takes to win them over."

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RELATED ARTICLE: The Rundown

* Focus group shares honest feedback on credit unions.

* Most business owners want to be heavily courted.

* Expertise, online banking, branches were important factors.

MICHELLE A. SAMAAD

msamaad@cutimes.com
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Title Annotation:FOCUS GROUP
Author:Samaad, Michelle A.
Publication:Credit Union Times
Date:Sep 11, 2013
Words:1027
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