A Look at Bank Transfer Season from the Front Lines

The fourth quarter of 2011 was a busy time for credit unions. The movement found itself at the center of national attention throughout October, as Bank of America’s $5 debit-card fee announcement on Sept. 29 opened the door to a flood of new members and positive press that flowed through Bank Transfer Day on Nov. 5 and beyond.

The credit union movement netted some 400,000 new members in 2011, and nearly 10 percent of those members joined a credit union in Washington.

Often overlooked, however, are the people whose work was most affected by the sudden growth, the people who truly made the progress of last fall possible on a day-to-day basis.

Kristin Anderson, manager of BECU’s downtown Seattle branch, vividly remembers the day the tides shifted.

“Sept. 30, that’s the first day that it really got crazy,” she said, “before Bank Transfer Day was even on the horizon, with just people mad about the Bank of America fees. Being in the branch that day was almost reminiscent of when WaMu was going under, except people were just really scared when WaMu went under, and this time around, people were just really angry at Bank of America and banks in general.”

Todd Pietzsch, manager of public relations for BECU, said the credit union was running at approximately 180 percent of normal activity for most of last fall over similar dates from years past, and the credit union continues to run at as much as 130 percent on a day to day basis in 2012.

“It didn’t really matter what time of the day,” Anderson said. “Typically, in the retail network, the branches tend to be slower in the morning, but that wasn’t the case after Sept. 30. We had people waiting when we opened the doors, and we had a lobby full of people when we locked the doors at 6.”

So, for weeks on end, every day at BECU was essentially Bank Transfer Day, but only one of them was specifically organized and well-run. Anderson, who has been with BECU for nearly 11 years and has been a branch manager for eight, had extra staff on hand—and extra coffee, she said—on Nov. 5 in anticipation of the rush.

“Bank Transfer Day was one of the least overwhelming days, if you will, because we had the extra staffing,” she said. “It was coordinated with the amount of people that we ended up letting in toward the end there. When I think about the fourth quarter of 2011, Bank Transfer Day isn’t what I think about. It’s the month leading up to it.”

Pietzsch and BECU also worked with representatives from the Occupy Seattle movement to coordinate groups of people who wanted to join the credit union as part of a public protest.

“What they were trying to do was organize a rally starting at Westlake and then around to several credit unions, promoting credit unions as an alternative to the larger financial institutions,” he said. “At each location, they would drop off a handful of their supporters to open accounts. We worked with them and kind of organized what they were doing, and on that Nov. 5, we knew approximately when they would be coming.”

“They were really cordial and respectful,” he added. “Their main thing was to just make their point, not to overwhelm the credit union.”

But as Anderson pointed out, Bank Transfer Day was just one day in a sea of busy days. Staff at her downtown Seattle branch was often working several hours later than normal just to handle the influx, and the long days were just one piece of what ended up being a stressful environment for frontline staff. But their ability to remain positive, to engage each member individually and to keep their eyes fixed on the larger goal paid dividends.

“It really did pay off in the end, because now we’ve got these members who are engaged,” Anderson said. “Often times I would stand to offer my hand to shake it and welcome them to the credit union, and we would end up hugging, because they were just so happy and relieved to have been taken care of. So I think word of mouth and referrals and all that contributed as well.”

Pietzsch said that BECU has also spent years working on its branding, studying aided and unaided awareness among Washington consumers, including ads that ultimately resonated with 2011’s frustrated consumers.

“We had that brand and that awareness and that positioning in place, and when this happened, that proved to be very beneficial,” he said. “We’ve always been growing, but just having that awareness and that positioning in the marketplace, when they were considering who to switch to, those efforts put us at the top of their minds.”

And while last fall’s breakneck pace has clearly slowed a bit, BECU’s downtown Seattle branch still logged 230 new members in January as well. But Anderson said that her staff is able to maintain some perspective as it works to adapt to this new reality.

“You can feel really good about working those 12 hours a day or whatever it was,” she said, “because it was for the right reasons.”

Click here to watch video footage of the Occupy rally at BECU on Bank Transfer Day.


Questions or Concerns? Contact Matt Halvorson, Anthem Editor: mhalvorson@nwcua.org.

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