Financial Wellbeing Joins The Front Line At Patelco

The California cooperative introduces an entirely new in-branch role as part of its organizational shift to promote wellbeing.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Patelco introduced its certified financial specialist role 18 months ago.
  • The position is responsible for building long-term, impactful relationships with members and helping them address financial hardships.

Two years ago, Patelco Credit Union ($8.4B, Dublin, CA) made a commitment to tie its mission directly to the financial wellbeing of its members. As part of that decision, the cooperative made a number of operational updates from infrastructure and processes to brand and marketing.

The credit union’s staff members specifically, its 280 branch and 100 contact center employees played a major role in the shift.

“We knew we could train them in all things financial health and wellness,” says Ameet Seth, Patelco’s vice president of retail branches and investments. “But we were putting a stake in the ground, and we needed specialized certifications and positions.”

The Best Of The Best

As part of its commitment to financial wellbeing, the credit union created the certified financial specialist, a narrowly defined role that helps members at all stages and complexity of their financial journey. In essence, the certified financial specialist provides one-on-one guidance for members, personalizing strategies and providing tools and expertise to improve their financial wellbeing. According to Seth, these specialists help members with debt consolidation, credit score repair, retirement planning, home-buying planning, and more.

“Things that require time and attention,” the VP says. “Not just your basic stuff.”

Unfortunately, the credit union didn’t initially have the skillset it needed on staff. To build out a team of certified wellness specialists, Patelco turned to CUNA’s Financial Counseling Certification Platform (FiCEP), where graduates earn a Certified Credit Union Financial Counselor designation that they must recertify every three years.

After building the role and identifying a training program, Patelco turned its attention to a phased deployment that would allow it to study the role’s impact and tackle friction points before introducing the concept across the organization.

For phase one, which Patelco launched 18 months ago, the credit union sifted through nearly 400 employees to identify talent. It then asked employees to participate in a panel interview with senior leaders to ensure they were ready, willing, and able to launch a whole new role.

“It was a rigorous process to identify employees, but we were looking for the best of the best,” Seth says.

Patelco ultimately selected 10 team members six from the branch, four from the contact center and account solutions department. This pilot team then started a weeks-long training program during which they were still responsible for completing their day jobs. When the pilot team completed their training, Patelco changed their titles to reflect their promotion, and the newly minted certified financial specialists, armed with a new focus, started their new roles in their branch, contact center, or department.

Grading Financial Wellness

Patelco is kicking off the third phase of deployment in June with 12 more employees taking FiCEP training. Of its 37 branches, 24 have certified financial specialists embedded in them. Seth estimates 95% of Patelco’s branches will have CFS coverby late fall.

Thus far, every specialist has been promoted from within the credit union, most commonly the branch. Understanding the branch culture is important because CFS staff reports directly to the branch manager, and CFS success is tied directly to branch success.

But Patelco has other ways to measure the effectiveness of its CFS staff.

The credit union has developed a scorecard, and although the credit union is still working through the finalized elements, the grading criteria does include several big-ticket items.

First, late last year, Patelco joined a cohort of credit unions participating in Gallup’s Financial Wellbeing (FWB) initiative and is trackingmember responses, branch by branch, to several initiative questions focused on wellbeing. Those questions are:

  • Was the team member knowledgeable?
  • Did they ask the right questions?
  • Did they focus on long-term goals?

As it relates to its CFS program, Patelco wants to know if branches with CFS employees score better than those without.

Second, the credit union just launched Inclusiv’s Pathways to Financial Empowerment program, which allows credit unions to track and analyze wellnessconversations with members. Patelco will monitor scores to determine if wellbeing scores tracked in that platform are improving over time.

Third, because CFS staff are a branch’s de facto financial wellbeing cheerleaders, Patelco tracks their ability to champion wellbeing. For example, CFS staff have hosted trainings, offered webinars and seminars, conducted branch huddles, and more.

“We’ve poured so much training into them,” Seth says. “We expect them to help elevate the rest of the branch.”

The credit union also evaluates CFS staff using more traditional metrics, including declined loans. Patelco approaches a decline not so much a ‘no’ but as a ‘not right now, and it expects specialists to dig into the denial tohelp the member address underlying problems going forward.

Room To Improve

The majority of Patelco’s specialists work in a branch, but they are not transaction takers. Fortunately, the fact many specialists come from the branch and are already versed in Patelco culture helps ward off conflict between CFS and branch employees.

For Patelco, the bigger challenge lies in getting branch manager buy-in. Specialists report to branch managers, but Patelco doesn’t want to fall into familiar habits or use specialists as glorified bankers.

“We’re not just painting something a new color; we’re trying something different. We need to show managers why the role is critical and get them to advocate for and support specialists,” Seth says.

Patelco also has asked regional performance managers to have weekly conversations with CFS staff to discuss challenges and has tasked its financial wellbeing team, which is part of the member experience team, with answering specialists’ questions and helping them amplify their reach inside the organization.

Since the program’s launch 18 months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed not only the content of wellbeing conversations but also how specialists are having them. Although members are worried or scared, they don’t actively express those feelings. So, specialists have had to scratch beneath the surface in conversations increasingly occurring over video.

Recently, Patelco launched a new program called My Financial Journey. Through a dedicated email address, Patelco members can contact the credit union to ask a question or discuss their financial situation. Patelco then routes requests to a specialist who reaches out to help.

The CFS program has been a success, Seth says, but the VP won’t give it an ‘A’ at least, not yet. That’s not because the specialists have failed far from it but because Seth can see the potential. The credit union just isn’t quite there yet.

“We still have work to do,” he says. “It’s not the difference-maker we believe it can be, but we’re working on it.”


March 23, 2021

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