Peters: It’s Good to be the Little Guy

Large providers can't supply the intimate experience that CUs and other small, local businesses can.

May 17, 2012
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Credit unions have a lot of heavy hitters in their midst. “But the small guy has enormous advantage,” says management guru/best-selling author Tom Peters.

In the second part of a three-part interview, Peters tells CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney which financial services providers stand out from the rest and what credit unions can learn from them. He also explains the concept of “Brand You.”

Peters will address the America’s Credit Union Conference, June 17-20 in San Diego.

Cheney: Which financial services companies stand out and what can CUs learn from them?

Peters: Thanks to some time spent working for Uncle Sam—namely the Navy—I’ve had my insurance through USAA since 1966. They’ve served me well. They’ve always been responsive as the dickens—not unlike credit unions—and I get a check for $7.42 every year as a partial owner.

I’m loath to admit it, but I was in a significant accident decades ago and I was sued. We won, but not at zero cost.

There was never an issue with USAA; they never beat me up or threatened to cancel my insurance. So from my perspective, they really define long-term stability and focus on the customer.

That’s what credit unions try to do. That’s the big deal.

Another is Commerce Bank, which was sold for a jillion dollars to TD bank. I was pretty close to the people at Commerce Bank. Their focus on customer service was mind boggling.

I love a bank that scares the living hell out of the likes of Chase when they open retail branches in New York—and whose biggest measurement of success is how many dog biscuits they give away at the branches.

Their whole motto was, “We don’t want you at the ATM; we want you in the branch where we’ll do our best for you but also expose you to what we have on offer.”

I read a fabulous article in Fortune about American Express, which has done almost a 180 on customer service in the last few years. In 25 words or less, they went from an emphasis on transactions and productivity to an emphasis on building customer relationships.

Cheney: What would you tell a CU CEO who says “we’re too small to compete with the likes of USAA and American Express?”

Peters: First, I’d make a big distinction between USAA and American Express. USAA certainly is a big company, but it feels like a small company.

I’m willing to be fascinated with American Express, but it’s a monster that has its full share of flaws.

What I will tell people—and what I tell retailers who are fighting Home Depot—is that I understand you have some pretty heavy hitters in your midst. But the small guy has an enormous advantage.

I tell people in retail, if you’re a local organization and you can’t beat the hell out of Walmart, there’s something wrong with you. Small, local businesses have an opportunity for intimacy with customers that Walmart can’t duplicate. The CEO and top team can be more engaged with the communities they serve.

The best business book I’ve read in years is “Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America.” There’s a store in Fairfield, Ohio, that’s the No. 1 Christmas ornament store in the country; maybe the world. It has 30,000 to 40,000 different Christmas ornaments.

Even though Fairfield, Ohio—to the best of my knowledge—doesn’t have enough people to fill a small high school auditorium, it has people flying in from all over the world. The author has a good one-liner: “Be the best—it’s the only market that’s not crowded.” I love that.

NEXT: What is “Brand You?”

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