“Our motto is, ‘We’ve been here, we’ll be here,’” says Fix, CEO and managing officer of First Federal of Lakewood. “As I look at our company over the last 70 years, our brand and our reputation is still First Federal of Lakewood, and you can come in here 10 years from now and we’re still going to be First Federal of Lakewood.”
First Federal, a community bank with 206 employees at 12 locations and more than $1 billion in assets, is No. 1 in market share in many of the areas it serves.
“We don’t have the same marketing budget that some of the larger banks may have, but what helps us attract customers is the fact that we get involved in a lot of these community organizations,” he says. “By doing that, word gets out that not only are we the local community bank, but many of our directors, officers and managers participate in the community.”
Smart Business spoke with Fix about how providing customer care and encouraging community service among his employees helps First Federal of Lakewood run with the big dogs.
How do you use customer service to compete with larger financial institutions?
Each of our retail employees listens to what the customer is asking for and tries to provide great service to assist that customer in meeting their financial needs as they enter into any of our retail outlets.
When you compare financial institution to financial institution, you could look at the mass commodity and say, ‘Each company provides very similar products.’ We compete (by providing) one-on-one service.
Over the last few years, we went through a transformation when I became the CEO, and we put forth a retail focus that really hinges on consultative selling. We really wanted to restructure each of our branches, so we were geared to get out of the office and have each of our branch sales managers more proactive in trying to reach the customers in each of the communities that we do business.
(There is) the old paradigm in banking that you waited at your station for the customer to walk in and sit down. We still do that very well, but the days of just waiting for the customer to come in (are over.)
This Northeastern Ohio region is a very competitive area. I would categorize it as a region that is probably overbanked, compared to other regions in the country.
We’ve got a lot of large banks in town, and certainly there’s been some consolidation. There’s been, over the years, some new banks moving into the area, and we’ve seen a lot of new mortgage companies coming in.
Each day, we have to work harder because we know there’s somebody who’s working hard to gain some of our customers. As a result, it does make it challenging working in this environment, but again, even as a billion-dollar company, we feel we can compete very well with them.
How does your reputation as a community bank help you compete?
If you go through each of our branches, you’ll find our officers are involved in nonprofit boards, Rotary, Kiwanis and chambers of commerce.
We just opened a branch in Brunswick. We wanted to take care of the customers in that community but also to be a part of that community, and we do that by getting involved. That’s encouraged for each of our employees.
We like to sponsor (events.) We recently sponsored a 5K run, and the monies went for scholarships for local area high school students. I ran in it myself, and I’m going to be handing out the scholarship checks.
We got involved with the food bank. For each checking account we open, we made a contribution to the food bank. We like to do those kinds of community things.
When you’re a community bank, from a profitability standpoint, there’s probably a bit of a give-up because of time and dollars spent, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a good neighbor and a good citizen, we want to be a part of the community and we want to give something back to it as well.
How do you convey the necessity of customer service to your employees?
I have had a number of meetings with our employees and I’ve explained to them that one of our strategic intents is to be customer-centric. We want to put forth an image as a customer-friendly community bank that provides quality, reliability and ease of doing business.
As a follow-up to that, we want to instill in each of our employees that our customers are very important, and we want to put forth a culture of commitment and execution.
Each year, I present a business plan to all the employees at a general meeting. I go over each of our action plans and each of our goals. Then, on a quarterly basis, I update the employees as to how we’re doing. In the interim, we have monthly meetings called retail meetings.
I try to get around to each branch and meet with all of our managers to go over our results and to glean what their challenges are on a day-to-day basis.
The beauty of our company is that there are not a lot of layers to get to me or other members of senior management. I try to keep my hand on the pulse and make myself visible.
I come in on Saturdays and walk around the Lakewood lobby. I try to get out to each branch.
How do you measure your success in customer service?
We survey our customers on cards called, ‘How’s our service?’ I’ve set a benchmark of service because even though we’re trying to promote more retail, I don’t want to give up any service quality.
I read every one of these cards, and if I see any card that has any issues from a customer, I’ll pick up the phone myself and call them.
We’ve got great employees. They know they’ve got our full support from the top of the organization all the way down. If they have an issue or a problem, I’ve made myself available.
Any employee can call me if there’s an issue, and if we’ve got a customer issue, I’d like to hear about those things.
You really have to be close to what’s going on from an operations standpoint, or you can lose touch with the company. Our message is a very simple one: We want to continue to drive our core values. We want to live our mission more efficiently, and we want to enhance our profitability and sustainability.
HOW TO REACH: First Federal of Lakewood, (216) 221-7300 or www.ffl.net