Marci Francisco is the senior vice president of member experience at Premier America Credit Union ($2.9B, Chatsworth, CA), a position she has held since April 2019. Here, she answers Callahan’s leadership questions about her credit union’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Between the beginning of 2020 and now, how have your operations changed?
CU QUICK FACTS
Premier America Credit Union
HQ: Chatsworth, CA
Data as of 03.31.20
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 1.5%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 0.0%
Marci Francisco: We are a completely different organization from what we were at the beginning of 2020. We are in the middle of a digital revolution. We converted cores at the end of last year, and we had significant initiatives lined up for this year that were part of a five-year plan. We’re in the middle of launching a new CRM, searching for a new online banking provider, reconsidering our brand, and looking into new products. Even though we were in the middle of a pandemic and we didn’t know what the future held, we kept moving forward knowing our member’s needs were evolving. We’ve done in a matter of weeks what would have taken a year or a year-and-a-half.
We didn’t have a work-from-home policy at the beginning of this, and we moved 65% of the team to remote work within about three weeks. We changed our legacy call center phone system so we could break the call center into five mini centers while we worked to set up remote capability. We were concerned if one person was infected, the whole department could be impacted. So, we designated small rooms where we could house three or four call center employees until we could purchase laptops, headsets, and other necessities to send these folks home.
What were some of the first leadership challenges you faced?
MF: We created a robust pandemic plan in the past and set up an incident response team, so we felt well prepared. But when you plan for a disaster, you plan for maybe 60%-70% of the potential impacts. With this, the scope was so much larger than anyone anticipated — 100% of our team members and 100% of our community was impacted. The guidance was changing by the minute, and we were trying to distill that information as quickly as possible while communicating it to our teams in a way that made sense.
There were so many human emotions to process. Regardless of strategy, plan, or preparation, that human element quickly came to the surface. We wanted to be intentional in how we handled it and still provide a path forward. It required us to be focused and collaborative. We spun out communications through the phone, text, chat, and anyway we could be available to our team members. The pace was unbelievable.
How has the pandemic changed the way you communicate with members and staff?
Marci Francisco, SVP of Member Experience, Premier America Credit Union
MF: We’re an organization that believes in transparency. Some people think that’s a buzzword, but transparency, honesty, and authenticity are some of the most difficult things to achieve as an organization. So, although we already were pretty methodical in how we communicated with staff, we rapidly increased our cadence.
At first, the executive team met three or four times per day, sometimes with senior vice presidents, vice presidents, and the management team. Our CEO provided daily all-staff updates. Additionally, we increased the frequency of our email messaging and posting.
It’s impossible to over-communicate in a crisis. We didn’t have all the answers to the questions that came in, but we worked hard to find them and never stopped talking.
How have you evolved as a leader?
MF: I’m an introvert by nature, and it can be a bit challenging for me to put myself out there. But in times of crisis, you have to do that. I’ve had more one-on-one conversations in the past few months than I’ve had in my career. That’s been the best way I could have spent my time. Those conversations helped me build trust with my team and have shown me folks rise to the occasion when they see how much you care about their welfare. Making myself more available helps team members feel heard, validated, trusted, and empowered.
What has surprised you most about your members and employees during this time?
MF: When the stay-at-home order first came into place in Southern California, there was a tremendous amount of fear. Calls went through the roof; people were scared and upset. But that quickly passed, and our team members came together more engaged and invested in the credit union than ever.
When we decided to keep our branches open, our team members were passionate about being there for our members. We passed through that initial uncertainty and came out so mission-aligned and dedicated to service that our members sent us letters, emails, and calls sharing stories and thanking us for our efforts.
Based on the operational changes you’ve made, what have you found is a better way of doing business than it was before?
MF: I spent 19 years as a service provider, working on the go. I love it when teams have the ability to work remotely, and our team has responded well to it. We haven’t seen any declines in productivity — net promoter score has gone up, abandonment rates and wait times have gone down — and people are more enthusiastic. I think we’ll keep remote work as a part of our future strategy knowing it will allow us to expand our services in a smart way for our credit union and our members.
What will the future hold for your credit union?
MF: I don’t think things will slow down for a while as we recover as a society and as an economy. The gains we’ve made in technology, creativity, and employee engagement are not short-term gains. In fact, I think everyone has seen just how much we care. There are blood, sweat, and tears as proof.
You need to be humble enough to do the hard thing.
My sister worked for Disney, and as she came up through the ranks she told me something I haven’t forgotten. If a child hugs a character at a theme park, you’ll never see that character let go first. They understand everyone is coming to them with a story or a need, so they’ve got to be there for that person until he or she gets what they need and more. For us, we have to understand everyone is coming to the credit union with a need, even if it’s not obvious what it is. The best thing our team members can do is to be there for them for as long as they need us to be.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned from this experience that will better prepare you for similar situations in the future?
MF: Even if you think you’ve laid the best plan, there is always the potential for more. Once we finish a project, a plan, whatever, we’ve got to tear it apart and find what we missed. Going forward, I want to be the person who looks at something and finds out how it can be better.
We had a great pandemic plan in place, we just didn’t realize 100% of people would be impacted. I’m not sure we could have thought of that before this, but we absolutely can in the future.
What one piece of advice do you have for other leaders?
MF: You have to be authentic and true to who you are as a person. When people are faced with difficult or uncertain situations, you don’t want to let people down. You want to find the right answer, and you want to stand up in front of people and inspire them. People want to be inspired; they need human connection. If you bring yourself to the table, people respond to that.
What helped me most was being able to say, “I don’t know, I haven’t been through this before. But, I’m going to figure it out, and we’re going to work through it together.” That can be difficult, but you need to be humble enough to do the hard thing.
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