Originally published February 21, 2013 on CUinsight.com.
The rise of national chains, whether retailers or restaurants, lead some to bemoan the loss of local alternatives. A Walmart/Starbucks/Applebees heads into town, steamrolls locally-owned competitors, and everyone is worse off, or so the sentiment goes. While chains may deserve some of the negative criticism thrown their way, the fact is that they offer a more consistent experience for consumers. They do so not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of employee/customer interaction. Chains tend to be very successful, so perhaps there is something to learn from their efforts.
One of the interesting things I hear credit union leaders say about their employees is how much members like them. They sing the praises of Sally, for example, talking about how “her members” would revolt if Sally were ever to leave, and how sometimes people will, during Sally’s vacation, outright delay their business until she returns.
I understand the pride these leaders have in Sally and how important it is that she makes members feel special through her efforts. Having employees like Sally can be great for business. But there are risks as well. Does Sally play favorites? Does she treat every member the same? Is Sally delivering service in a way that aligns with the credit union’s strategic initiatives?
My guess is that the answer to these questions isn’t always the correct one. My guess is that Sally rushes her “problem” members through more quickly than others, and that some people get less than others in terms of attention. I also bet that Sally is allowed to deliver her special brand of service even though others are asked to do things differently.
Why does this matter? People bank on consistent experience. More often than not, the average consumer is going to choose the brand they are most familiar with, the one that does it the same way no matter the location or the employee. While we may bemoan the loss of mom and pop’s local store, the fact is that consumers choose the option they prefer – and by and large they choose consistency, whether that consistency is defined by price, service, or location.
In the town where I live there was a coffee shop that looked intriguing. They outdid Starbucks on comfort and ambiance. It was a great place to sit and relax. The problem was their employees. You might wait 20 minutes for your drink, you might wait five. Your drink might be piping hot, or it might be lukewarm at best. Over time this appealing, locally-owned Starbucks alternative became more and more empty. Eventually the shop closed down while the Starbucks around the corner continued to buzz with traffic.
That isn’t the end of the story.
Not too long after, the owners of the coffee shop opened a re-imagined cafe. No longer a coffee shop, it was a small coffee/sandwich shop/bistro with a new brand, look, etc. They had one problem, however. They kept the employees. Now, instead of 5-20 minutes for a hot or cold coffee, now it is 5-20 minutes for tepid soup and half-toasted club sandwiches. The customer experience remains poor and the traffic is anemic.
The point here is that their mom and pop status isn’t the cause of their failure, nor is Starbucks, or McDonalds, or any other competitor establishment. The cause of their failure is inconsistency. Consumers want to know what they are going to get, and they want to get what they expect.
Back to Sally. While it may be a great thing that some employees go out of their way to take care of members, if it does not define the consistent member experience then their efforts may do more harm than good simply because it magnifies service inconsistency.
Some would argue that the solution is to ensure that all rise to the level of service delivered by Sally, and that may be the right answer, but if your value proposition is based on something else, such as price, then maybe Sally does too much. She may in fact be undermining your long-term success.
In all cases, the important issue is for you to define just what that experience should be for members, and then make that experience the gold standard to which all employees, even Sally, are held accountable.