How To Build An Army Of Ambassadors

North Carolina’s SECU has nearly two million members worldwide and branches in every one of the state’s 100 counties, but it’s the credit union’s ambassadors that give it a distinct presence in the Tar Heel state.

State Employees Credit Union ($27.1B, Raleigh, NC) serves more than 1,800,000 members through 250 branches spread across all of North Carolinas 100 counties. The second-largest credit union in the United States also posts an average member relationship that is more than double the average of credit unions in its asset-based peer group $21,285 versus $8,411 and more than triple the industry average $21,285 versus $6,767 according to fourth quarter 2013 FirstLook data. So how does SECU ensure members not only join the cooperative but also use its products and services? Word of mouth marketing plays a major role.

Here, Leigh Brady, SECUs executive vice president for organizational development, explores how the credit union has been recruiting members as volunteer ambassadors since the 1970s and how this group of dedicated members has grown in both size and effectiveness over time.


data as of 12.31.13

  • HQ: Raleigh, NC
  • ASSETS: $27.1B
  • MEMBERS: 1,857,647
  • BRANCHES: 253
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 6.65%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 8.60%
  • ROA: 0.39%

How did SECU develop a group of ambassadors?

Leigh Brady: We initially developed the program in the 1970s but formalized it in 2006. At that time, it grew from a regionally based program, where members from different districts met together periodically, to a local advisory board for every branch.

Our branch managers personally select members and invite them to participate on a local advisory board. For a new branch, the first advisory board generally takes approximately six months to create because you have to get to know the membership in that new area.

For those that have established advisory boards, recommendations for new members to serve as volunteers often come from other advisory board members. We have two-year terms and a volunteer ambassador can serve a maximum of eight years, so no one serves indefinitely.

How many members are part of the advisory boards today?

LB: We have 253 branches now and each one has a local advisory board with 12 members, so that is more than 3,000 volunteer ambassadors we have helping us spread the word about what is going on at the credit union.

How do you communicate with the ambassadors?

LB: We hold quarterly, in-person meetings. We typically schedule either a lunch or dinner meeting at a local restaurant or hold meetings at a branch after hours. During the meeting the group discusses branch-specific topics and receive updates about what is going on at a community and statewide level with SECU. We ask all of our operational vice presidents to speak at 10 of these meetings across the state each year. They are able to explain a little more about what they do for the credit union and answer more strategic questions.

Technology has made it easier to communicate in between our in-person meetings. We are able to distribute information very quickly. For example, we email the press releases we send to the media to all of our volunteer ambassadors as well. Many of them will forward the credit unions news to family, friends, and co-workers to help us get our message out.

How does SECU use its volunteers beyond distributing news?

LB: We use them quite a bit as focus groups. If our board is considering a new service or a change in an existing service, the volunteer ambassadors who serve on our local advisory boards provide a good indication of how the general membership is going to accept the change. However, I would say word-of-mouth marketing is their primary job.

Beyond sharing credit union news, they keep their eyes and ears open for opportunities. For example, there are 58 community colleges in the state of North Carolina. If someone on our local advisory board works for one of the colleges, they look for ways to get the credit union in the door and help us gain entrance to their new employee training events or new student orientations. The advisory board member might even introduce us or personally welcome us during the event itself.

What advice do you have for other credit unions considering starting a volunteer program like this?

LB: Look at your objectives before starting a volunteer program. Decide ahead of time what you want to accomplish with this program and put guidelines in place before you start. Start out small and correct any mistakes you make at the beginning before going full force. Pilot the volunteers in a particular area and then fine-tune your program.

What has SECU changed or fine-tuned about its program?

LB: One of the best additions weve made to the program is holding educational sessions for the ambassadors before our annual meeting. We started this almost a decade ago, and it is a democratically run process. We ask in advance what the volunteers want to learn about and they decide on two to three topics of interest. We then hold educational sessions geared toward what they have asked to learn about. This typically includes understanding how particular products or services the credit union offers can benefit members.

Weve also made, and are continuing to make, a concerted effort to look at the representation of various age levels, school systems, and state agencies on our advisory boards. Through overall membership surveys, we know what the credit unions average age of membership is and can see where weaknesses exist in each branch area. We try to find advisory board members who best represent our overall membership. This can be challenging as members who are retired generally have more free time than younger members especially those with children. However, reaching the younger demographic is important for us and we need to make sure we are recruiting ambassadors in that age group.

Another change which we havent explicitly asked for but is nice to have is legislative contacts. If needed, we have a strong grass roots network of advisory board members who could write letters to their representatives, reach out to personal contacts, and get a message out quickly on behalf of the credit union.

Do you think the volunteers have increased referral business to the credit union?

LB: Definitely. I hope all of our members feel good enough about our service to refer us, but those who are advisory board members become true advocates and are very high referrers.

How do you think having this group in place has increased member loyalty overall?

LB: I happen to think we have really good loyalty anyway because close to 70% of our members use the credit union as their primary financial institution. Weve also done some research through CUNA and have survey results showing that the majority of our members would refer us.

Are advisory board members more loyal? I would say yes. I think those members are also our best and worst critics because we task them with making sure we stay true to our mission. They are going to be very vocal if they find something they dont think benefits the general membership. We serve more than 1.85 million members in North Carolina and have members in all 50 states and overseas making us worldwide in many ways. However, we focus on products and services that serve our core base of state and public school employees in NC. If we did not do that well, our advisory board members would be the first ones to come to the defense of their co-workers. They know what is needed and are quick to recommend the credit union and quick to speak up to offer criticism that pushes us to improve.

July 17, 2014

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