Stop Shuffling Members Around And Hire A Universal Employee Instead

Versatile employees with critical-thinking skills wear many hats to streamline customer service at branches.


The concept of a universal employee is catching on at credit unions as a way to provide quality services to members more efficiently. A universal employee is the worker who can do it all, the person who moves from one task to another seamlessly, taking members through each step of a transaction instead of shuffling them between departments. Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($1.60B, St. Paul, MN) and Grow Financial Federal Credit Union ($1.83B, Tampa, FL) both hire and train universal employees to serve their members.

Affinity Plus introduced the universal employee model at its branches in 2007 after years of strategizing. Grow Financial implemented its initiative more recently, only a year ago, but has already seen a positive effect on its balance sheet. Loan origination per employee is up 5.5% since Grow Financial adopted the universal employee model, and overall loan originations have increased 18.5%. In the year since Grow Financial switched to the universal employee model, the credit union has originated more loans than in any year since the economic downturn began.

Bridging the Continental Divide

During branch observation sessions, senior managers at Affinity Plus recognized inefficiencies in how their branch staff interacted with members. A member with a debit card issue, for instance, could only be served by that department to resolve the problem, and often that involved the members themselves getting passed around.

“We had what I called the continental divide, where tellers operated in one area of a branch and loan officers in a different area, and “there wasn’t any collaboration or teamwork between the two,” says Dave Larson, senior vice president at Affinity Plus. After studying the problem, Affinity realized something had to change.

Grow Financial came to a similar conclusion.  Before the credit union made the switch, team members played limited roles in the branches.

“The team member’s education or previous experience would dictate whether the person could help a member inside the store,” says Thomas Feindt, executive vice president at Grow Financial. “Well that doesn’t make for a very good environment. If you have three tellers and they’re not doing anything, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to help someone on the platform side.”

To improve service, Affinity Plus eliminated the titles member service representative and financial service officer, replacing them with one all-encompassing title: Member advisor. All employees who work with members are now considered member advisors.

“It was amazing. Just simply changing the title eliminated a lot of those divides,” Larson says.

Now, branch employees can assist members with any number of tasks throughout the day, from running the drive-through to helping members make transactions or check account balances. And every one of Affinity Plus’s employees in each of its 26 branches can help members with all types of lending: business, consumer, real estate, home equity, first mortgages, debit cards, and credit cards. There is no special area where a member must go to be helped with any one of these things, Larson says. Because employees still specialize in certain areas, staff members collaborate and work together to deliver the best possible service.

The program has worked so well at Affinity’s branches that the credit union decided to apply the same strategy to its back office. We’ve seen this work on the branch side where we are far more fluid in our ability to help members that now all of our back office employees in marketing, accounting, finance, operations, and IT are viewed as member advisors as well, Larson says.

Grow Financial took a slightly different path. To support the transition, the credit union altered the structure of its branches. Team members are now called member relationship specialists, and within that job family there are tiered levels of responsibility. Employees start off at level one, a classification for those who understand one side of the institution, either cash or platform. Employees are promoted to level two when they show proficiency with both sides of the institution. Once they take on leadership roles, employees are promoted to level three, and they advance to level four after working with outside business development.

“One of the great things about this system is that people now control the rate of their promotion,” Feindt says. “In the past, a branch may have had only two lenders, and for someone to be promoted to that position, somebody else had to leave. Today, our team members can move up the ranks based on their skill sets and proficiencies.”

Finding the Right Person for the Job

Though many employees have a great wealth of financial knowledge and experience, not everyone is suited for this position. To find employees with the potential to perform a more universal role, Affinity Plus executives changed their interviewing techniques and reconsidered the type of experience they valued in applicants. Although Affinity Plus has hired ex-bankers with much success, candidates who can think critically and make decisions independently are often best suited to the position of member advisor.

“We empower our employees here,” Larson says, “so we ask interview questions that help us determine if candidates can make decisions on their own instead of just following the system or asking a supervisor.”

Like Affinity Plus, the executives at Grow Financial also look for certain personality traits that make for a successful employee.

“In previous years, we might have looked for folks that had financial industry experience and made that a key reason for hire, but now we look more for retail experience,” Feindt says. “We can teach them how to work in a financial institution, but we can’t teach them how to serve.”