Customer U. Featured

12:13pm EDT July 31, 2006
What your employees don’t know about your business could hurt you. As business owners, we dedicate time to training our staffs, but education doesn’t stop there. A consumer population of smart shoppers expects answers - they do their homework before making purchases or signing on for services, but they don’t always read the fine print. It’s your job to steer them in the right direction.

“Education is the key to success in any business,” says Julie Flatt, chief operating officer of floridacentral in Tampa. “Educating the consumer is nothing more than relationship building, and that should be a No. 1 priority.”

Here, Flatt discusses why honesty, listening and the ability to offer solid advice about your products and services will result in repeat business.

Can you assume that employees can take on the charge of teaching members?
We have to begin first by educating our employee. Without a knowledgeable, trained staff, you cannot provide the best quality products and services. Floridacentral’s brand IS their employees, so we must train and develop them to protect our member’s financial needs. We do this through an in-house training program and a ‘floridacentral university,’ where employees can earn degrees and they are recognized on an annual basis. We also give employees access to a library of educational resources and tuition reimbursement for college courses. This training must also extend to the back office - your operations. After all, they support your frontline, which has direct contact with our members.

What do you stress to employees during training?
When it comes to communicating with members, honesty and active listening are critical. Knowing our full line of products and services is a given. We need to be upfront with members — we need to be someone they trust. It is important for a financial institution to be up-front about all costs. Many members do not read the fine print, and it is up to us to make sure they do. We must also teach them what questions to ask other service providers about the same product. That way, when they shop the competition, they will have the information necessary to make a smart buying decision.

What misconceptions do business owners have about member education? Do we assume they know more about our businesses than they do?
I don’t think we really give our members enough credit for what they know. Society is an environment of shoppers. They look for excellent service, friendly staff and quality products. Most importantly, they want to see a tangible benefit from doing business with you. This is why we have to spend the time to educate our members. It is up to us to ask them the right questions so we can suggest the best products and services for their needs. This all goes back to educating our own employees to ask those questions and have an ear open so they can teach members about our offerings.

What happens when business owners don’t educate members?
The biggest investment business owners make in education is the time they spend talking to members about products and services and helping them make informed decisions. This is why active listening is so important. We need to tune in to opportunities to teach members about products and services we offer. If a member comments that they are looking to buy a new car, we must recommend our solution for their next purchase. If we ignore this comment, we could miss out on a sale. Ultimately, business owners who don’t listen for opportunities to educate can lose business. Their members will go down the street to the competition that offers the same product at a higher cost and a lower level of service. If members don’t know what you can offer, they will find what they need somewhere else.

What are some ways business owners can educate members?
Face-to-face interaction is the best for many reasons. First, you have members’ undivided attention and you can discuss all options available to them. They can see your sincerity — and that you want to do what is best for them.

If you can’t make direct contact with members, take advantage of tools like newsletters, promotions or your Web site. But remember, you can’t always rely on these sources. Not everyone reads carefully, and our members could miss details about products that are well suited for them. The most effective way to educate members is communicating with them in person.

What ‘credits’ do business owners get from educating members?
Payback for member education is repeat business and word-of-mouth marketing. If you treat a member well and steer them toward products that suit them, they will tell their friends that you spent the time to educate them. This goes back to the trust factor. If members trust you, they will recommend others to your products and services. At floridacentral, meeting our member’s financial needs mean reliability. We must expect our employees to exceed our member’s expectations by educating them on the products we offer and the service they deserve. That is what will produce a win-win situation for all of us.

JULIE FLATT is chief operating officer of floridacentral credit union in Tampa, Fla. Reach her at jflatt@floridacentralcu.com.