Thoughts, Words, Actions

It takes the right blend of thinking, communication, and behavior to effectively market to members and build lasting brand value.

Every quarter, Callahan visits a high-performing credit union for an in-depth, on-site examination of what makes that institution successful. The “Anatomy” feature — which includes both written and video content — appears in CUSP and on

The enduring lessons learned from the two-day visit with GTE Federal Credit Union are just as relevant today as they were in 2011. The credit union’s story of struggle and triumph is a timeless reminder of what any credit union can accomplish with the right resources, strategy, and mindset.

Numbers matter to any financial institution, but success on the balance sheet is often the outcome of how well the credit union talks the talk and walks the walk of cooperation with membership. That’s certainly GTE Federal Credit Union’s ($1.5B, Tampa, FL) philosophy.

“We’re striving to be the employer of choice and the financial institution of choice, but it really comes down to culture,” says COO E.C. Williams. “It’s not just products, not just rates, but the experience.”

“GTE came out of the market there for a while, as we resized and kind of shrunk for survival’s sake,” says John Trujillo, VP of member resolution, loan administration, portfolio and special asset management. “Now we’re on an upward trend to come back and deliver what we call a wow experience, giving them a level of service they not only demand, but deserve as members of the co-op.”

Effective Dialogue

GTE’s current culture of communication came about largely through the arrival of CEO Joe Brancucci, who implemented blogs, a monthly newsletter, and a direct email feature to ensure that communication between employees, members, the board and upper management was always a two-way street.

“For every decision, we ask ourselves, “Is it in the best interest of the member, the employee, and the community? If not, why are we doing it?”’ Brancucci says. “When you have that kind of discipline in communication, that’s when great decisions start being made.”

The Talk to Joe feature on GTE’s website currently receives three to six member emails a day, which is much less than when it first began. But it remains a valuable feedback tool for members.

 “Joe sees every one of those emails, looks at every one of them, and we jump on that,” says Williams. Sometimes the emails are questions and suggestions, other times they’re words of thanks and members stories, and many times they’re complaints.

 “A lot of people don’t like to get negative feedback, but the reality is it gives us an opportunity to improve,” Williams says. “That’s helped us improve this organization and the processes within the organization a lot faster than Joe or I ever anticipated.” 

Fee Structure and Low Cost Utilization

Every credit union has experienced negative feedback in one way or another, but it’s what you do with that feedback that matters. 

“When you tell a member why something is the way it is, they actually embrace it, and they may say ‘I don’t like it, but I understand,’” Brancucci says. Educational discourse not only diffuses anger, it allows members to take a more active role in the health and vitality of their institution.

An example was the 25-cent fee GTE had previously implemented for debit transactions, a move that drew extremely negative member reaction. GTE not only listened to members complaints but eventually drew naysayers into a mutually beneficial solution.

“First, we got rid of the fee, so members understand they’re not being penalized,” Brancucci says. “Then we asked our members to please use signature transactions if they can.” Once members were advised of the issues behind the fee, they took it to heart. GTE started earning more on signature-based transactions and was able to increase certificate rates and lower other fees as a result, Brancucci says. 

In addition, many behavior-based fees at GTE are now structured so that members under 12 or over 65 are exempt, which protects the most economically vulnerable portions of membership.

“We also did an excellent job of communicating to our membership on Reg. E as far as letting them know what the opportunity was, so they could opt-in right there,” says CFO Brad Baker. “About 65-75% of our members are on eStatements, so they communicate with us through our home-banking channel primarily.”

The credit union has continued to polish the technology capabilities of its CU@Home system, with upcoming RDC and other features that cut back on costs, increase convenience for members, and help collect valuable feedback.

“We also provided in-branch demonstrations and examples of how you can use our products,” says Lester Santos, VP of member consumer lending. “It’s starting to have an effect on underlying utilization.” 

Brand Equity and Terminology

GTE has become involved in the Net Promoter Score, which asks members if they’d recommend this organization to their friends and family members, Williams says. “It doesn’t take the place of a shopper program, but it gives you feedback on the effectiveness of your sales and service,” he says.

The credit union has also conducted some brand equity studies to determine the merit of changing its brand name. “Within our membership, we could see the Net Promoter rise, which is a good thing,” Brancucci says. But the community at large still identified the GTE brand with the tough times of the past. “The words they were using basically said the brand had no equity.” For this reason, the credit union is not only considering using a derivative of its name to help enhance band value but has evolved its brand language to help clarify that this is indeed a new institution centered on the community.

“We have 23 of what we once called branches, but if you look up a branch in the dictionary, it’s just an offshoot of a tree, it’s not the center of anything,” Brancucci says. So GTE has rebranded its branches as Community Financial Centers, and each of those sit within a community partner, what GTE would formally call SEGs, he says.

The credit union’s main office also serves as a link between downtown Tampa and the economically depressed Ybor City and helps revitalize the area by bringing job fairs and other incentives back to the neighborhood. The credit union even sponsors and participates in the city’s chamber of commerce.

“Ybor City is one of the most storied areas of Tampa Bay, in terms of its origination and growth back in the cigar days,” says Shamus McConomy, VP of member business services. “We’re just looking to be a good neighbor.” 

Marketing Base

GTE serves a wide demographic in the Tampa area and as membership changes over the years, so too must the credit union. “We’re willingly moving toward a younger age base. Our target market is an average age of 42, but right now we’re in excess of that,” Trujillo says.

“We have a U-22 checking account for members ages 12-22,” says Mandy Zurbrick, vice president of member marketing and promotion. “And we just rolled out our early savers program, where everyone under 18 gets 6.99% on their savings up to $500.” 

The credit union is also utilizing real members in its TV commercials and marketing pieces to foster pride and sense of ownership among all demographics. GTE also has a membership referral campaign started in November that has been bringing in approximately 300 new members every month, Zurbrick says.

Above and Beyond

Nothing says being there for members like extending help beyond the capacities of what a normal financial institution might offer. 

Sometimes the credit union is forced to say no, but its partnership with financial counseling firm BALANCE means GTE is still part of providing a solution for members, even if it’s not an immediate one. “This company can help you figure out where you are, how you get to where you want to be, and how long it is going to take to get there,” Santos says. “Once you’ve gone through the process, call us back; let’s see what you’ve learned and where we can help you.”

Another strategy is to offer assistance in members’ technological lives outside the credit union. “It’s tough for my IT shop to have a direct impact on the member experience,” says Chad Burney, chief information officer and vice president of virtual banking. So GTE engaged its technology partners to provide TechsonTour, a monthly free PC repair session for members at the CFCs. “They’ll do tune-ups, install anti-spyware and make sure members understand security and fraud issues,” Burney says.

Even the smallest programs can make a big impact with members and help distinguish the cooperative difference. “If you’re able to solve a problem and be part of resolution, there is a connection there,” Williams says. “Members don’t forget it.”