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Seminal seminars

Educational sessions not only help members and potentials, they're good for marketing, too

Nov2014-MM-Seminal-FilbrandtPeople walk into a credit union to open accounts for many reasons, so it’s often hard to track what prompts them. Still, one member made her motivation for joining quite clear.

New to Canada, the woman attended a financial seminar at a branch of B.C.’s Vancity Credit Union ($17.5 billion in assets, 501,000 members). The presenter came from her home country, so the she quickly felt comfortable about banking there, recalls Catherine Ludgate, manager, community investment at Vancity. “It made that first step over the threshold easier,” she says.

Education first, marketing second

Financial seminars are a common fixture at many credit unions, but using them as a marketing tool isn’t the objective, say those in the field. The goal is to provide education, training and information, one of the basic principles of the cooperative movement. “We’re working in the best interests of our members,” says Tania Goodine, executive vice president, engagement, for southwestern Ontario’s Libro Credit Union ($1.9 billion assets, 60,000 members).

“Inviting people can reduce the intimidation factor. They’re often extremely nervous about asking a question

—Tania Goodine, executive VP, engagement, Libro Credit Union

As a side benefit, these outreach programs can attract new clientele. Seminars have a marketing advantage over advertising campaigns because they focus on financial coaching and deliver the message that a credit union wants to have a knowledgeable membership. Libro offers numerous seminars on 12 to 15 subjects every year, aimed at existing members, but people are encouraged to bring friends. “Inviting people can reduce the intimidation factor,” says Goodine. “They’re often extremely nervous about asking a question.”

Vancity runs seminars on 10 different financial literacy topics, such as what a credit bureau does, how to budget and how credit cards work. They take the form of scheduled events held almost every weekday and are also given at the request of community centres, immigrant settlement agencies or public libraries. While the presentations are done in English, often a translator attends to explain confusing terms. One example is Each One, Teach One, Vancity’s workshop series aimed at immigrants, refugees, those with low incomes and other people who may face barriers when it comes to financial services.

An unexpected benefit emerged for Vancity when it decided to have staff present the seminars rather than outside consultants. “It was a huge booster of employee engagement. They’re [giving] better advice in the branch and they’re more confident,” says Ludgate.

Specialized topics in demand

Basic financial literacy is a perennially popular subject, but demand is growing for specialized topics. Vancity has introduced new material on protecting seniors from financial abuse and Libro has a popular session on financial planning for retirement. Held at the branches, the sessions are intended for small groups. Yet even though the venue is less intimidating than a seminar held in a hotel ballroom, some people are hesitant to talk about their financial standing. “We’ve learned to make it easy for people by having one-on-one question time after or by making ourselves available for follow-up phone calls,” says Goodine.

Ludgate and Goodine both agree that small groups are best. Fullday seminars at a central location appeal to small business owners and farmers – groups that enjoy networking as much as the learning experience, says Goodine. In contrast, Vancity’s seminars are two hours or shorter, sometimes split up into three or four shorter sessions. “Often one presenter can be enough, although with mixed cultural groups, we like to send more than one with different language or cultural skills who can identify key concepts,” says Ludgate.

No place for hard selling

Libro and Vancity never turn on the high-pressure sales approach, staying true to their cooperative principles. They don’t hide the fact that they would like to do business with everyone in the room, says Goodine, but education is the goal so that ultimately members are financially literate about all the services credit unions have to offer. ◊