COVID-19 forced Abound FCU to push back the opening of a new branch and move training into a remote environment.
The pandemic also prompted the credit union to develop a new strategy that enabled Abound to forge deep community ties early on.
Abound Federal Credit Union ($1.9B, Radcliff, KY) has a 10-year plan to expand its branch footprint. As part of that strategy, the Bluegrass State cooperative started planning in the summer of 2019 for a traditional brick-and-mortar location it was building from the ground up in Glasgow, KY.
The credit union intended to open the new branch in late spring 2020 but had to adjust that timeline after the coronavirus pandemic forced shutdowns. Abound opened the new location in May 2020, only two months later than its target date; however, opening a location in the middle of a pandemic did require a new approach to training and marketing, says Marc Prasch, chief member experience and operations officer at Abound.
In this Q A, Prasch discusses the challenges and opportunities the Glasgow branch presented.
Marc Prasch, Chief Member Experience Operations Officer, Abound FCU
When the pandemic struck, what was left to do to open the branch?
Marc Prasch: We were training and onboarding staff. We hired the branch manager nine months earlier, so she was well-versed in our systems and expectations, but the rest of the team was still coming together. We ended up remotely training and mentoring.
We also had all our final walkthroughs of the space and were finalizing all of our pre-marketing which we ended up dramatically changing. We couldn’t have an electronic sign out front saying, We’re open, come see us. The situation forced us to rethink some things.
How did the final walkthroughs compare to past experiences?
MP: There was a much smaller group allowed in the branch, and our facilities manager became the primary point person. He took pictures and videos and set up video calls so we could see it as he moved through the space. Usually, there’s a group of eight to 10 of us who traipse through and look at every finish and decoration, but that couldn’t happen. We trusted our contractor and facilities lead to see things through.
How did remote training work?
MP: Our most recent branch before the Glasgow location was in Bowling Green, which we built a few years ago. At that time, the training was going great when an individual in the branch got sick and we had to send one of the teams home. We learned that instead of training these groups separately, we can provide remote-desktop-enabled equipment. They can remote in at home, complete tests on our core system, and work through storyboarded scenarios through Microsoft Teams and Zoom as opposed to sitting in a training room. It worked well then, and we got a similar set up in place for our new Glasgow team.
CU QUICK FACTS
Data as of 12.31.20
HQ: Radcliff, KY
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 12.2%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 0.3%
Is remote training as effective and engaging as in-person training?
MP: Well, being able to test this situation a few years ago gave our learning and development team an early example of what to expect. There were some kinks, of course. You definitely miss some of the early team-building dynamics. This time, our branch manager focused on finding creative ways and platforms to bring the team together, building engagement and connection.
The training aspect was successful because they had a month or two in-person before the pandemic moved everything remote so it was more of a blended training rather than fully remote. Were there some elements where the employees could have been more confident before we opened? Yes, especially if they had been in a collaborative environment the whole time. But things went well, and any hurdles they faced were short lived.
Everyone was in it together. The branch manager is dynamic and really drove home our culture. And, we hired a great group. They had high energy. They wanted to be successful. There were no issues among the team members. They all worked well together.
What are the logistics of opening a branch when you want to limit fanfare and foot traffic?
MP: With our more traditional branch openings, there’s a Grand Opening. The board comes down and cuts a ribbon. We have cake, make speeches, and invite the local chamber of commerce and mayor.
None of that happened in Glasgow. We opened the branch with a closed lobby. We changed our electronic sign to say engage us online for new branch specials. We have drive-up ITMs, which were brand-new to the market and designed to stand out. They light up and are equipped with weather protectors. They look different, and we want people who drive by to remember them.
How did you have to pivot the marketing?
MP: We had to reprogram some of the follow-up. Typically, anything the gets filled out online goes to our call center group who can lend and not a branch. But we knew we’d miss an opportunity to build community support with this opening, so we rerouted those localized online requests back to the branch to have them follow-up.
We paused TV and radio marketing because there’s no sense in spending money on that when people are struggling. Instead, we looked for value-add marketing opportunities, like messaging to schools. With schools remote, teachers were struggling, so we ran teacher-focused promotions and giveaways to thank them for what they were doing. Initially, we pivoted to community appreciation over product promotion.
Abound’s Glasgow Branch
Abound’s drive-thru ITM machines at its Glasgow, KY, branch proved indispensable for members who preferred a contactless banking experience.
Abound’s ITMs are equipped with weather shields and bright lighted signage, the latter a way to stand out to passing drivers.
To drum up awareness for the new branch, employees hung door hangers on area homes.
As part of its supportive marketing campaign, Abound used specific language to underline its willingness to help: Together, creating possibilities and We’re here for you.
Teachers Appreciation Campaign
Abound gave away Yeti coolers and a kayak as part of a Teacher Appreciation campaign to benefit Glasgow County and city schools. In addition, it gave goodie baskets to every area school for teachers returning in August.
How did you deploy your branch staff?
MP: We were very intentional about business development. We’d never done it before, but our branch team handwrote and mailed thousands of postcards to area homes just good, old-school, grassroots marketing to connect with the community and the businesses. We wanted to say we’re here, we’re open, and we want to help. That drove a lot of opportunity for us.
What is your typical strategy when entering a new market?
MP: A few years before we open a branch, we usually start an indirect lending operation in the market to get an initial base of members. Once we’re open, our marketing would normally be heavy on promotion and specific offers in the market to drive people into our door. We’d have outbound calling ready to work a phone and email list.
We also normally would have a large amount of digital marketing, print, and billboards. But we hit the pause button on all of that to put forth a message of support and partnership. We’re going to be here for a long time, so what can we do to help the people and businesses?
We can’t assume marketing or putting a sign out front can generate something as tangible or relevant as what we were able to accomplish in Glasgow.
How have things evolved since last May?
MP: In June, we opened all our facilities 100%. We wear masks, have social distancing guidelines, have Plexiglass barriers in place, and limit the number of people inside the branch. We’ve been able to shift back to a near-normal model. Our marketing has shifted with it, to a blended approach of promotional and brand-focused. We still encourage our members to do things online, but they can come to the branch and the drive-thru.
What lessons did you take from opening a branch during the pandemic?
MP: Traffic was slow for the first several months, so our Glasgow branch staff helped answer call center phones because volumes were so high. We deployed technology that allowed our tellers in Glasgow to answer ITM video calls from all over our market.
As far as the branch opening experience, we’re going to think more about what’s the best form of marketing and promotion. Is it the traditional ribbon-cutting with heavy promotion? Or, is there an element of relevance and availability that drives a better result?
In the past, we’ve not been as aggressive with our business development officers at the front-end of a branch opening. They’ve always wanted to build relationships but have never had thousands of calls and emails to offer support. We were much deeper and closer to the community than we’ve ever been before.
We’ll continue that grassroots strategy to make more physical connections and to tell our story. We can’t assume marketing or putting a sign out front can generate something as tangible or relevant as what we were able to accomplish in Glasgow.