The Ultimate Question

Net promoter score sparks creative ways to improve member loyalty.

April 24, 2009

When Denise Wymore asked credit union marketers during a conference to rate the lunch they’d just eaten, results were positive: The “rubber chicken” netted a 3.89 satisfaction score on a scale of 1 to 5—a solid B- or C+.

Wymore then asked attendees the Net Promoter® Score (NPS) “ultimate question”: On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this lunch to a family member, co-worker, or friend? They laughed—and the paltry poultry nabbed a negative NPS.

Wymore, a certified Net Promoter associate based in Port Jefferson, N.Y., says this exercise highlights the difference between traditional member satisfaction surveys and NPS: Rather than assessing satisfaction, NPS determines how loyal members are.


  • NPS often creates a sense of urgency in the surveying organization.
  • Members often surprise CUs with many detailed suggestions.
  • Board focus: NPS helps CUs measure and identify ways to improve member loyalty.

It’s an important distinction, she says, because unlike “satisfaction,” loyalty indicates propensity to conduct repeat business and spread positive word of mouth. “The expectation of people running a financial errand is pretty low,” Wymore says. “People are satisfied if they can get in, get out, and no one gets hurt. That will get you a good grade. But it doesn’t indicate whether you’ll keep that business or get more business, or whether that member will market for you.”

NPS, introduced by customer loyalty guru Frederick Reichheld, categorizes respondents as promoters (those awarding ratings of 9 or 10), passives (7 or 8), or detractors (0 to 6). The resulting NPS is the percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors. Individual credit union scores vary. But systemwide, the average NPS is 23%, according to the Credit Union National Association’s (CUNA) 2009-2010 National Member Survey Report. Forty-nine percent of members are promoters, 26% are detractors, and 25% are passives. In comparison, banks’ overall NPS is -31% among members who have bank accounts.

“It’s hard to get promoters,” Wymore says. “That’s the point.” As a follow-up to the ultimate question, she suggests asking, “Why did you answer the way you did?” to encourage specific, actionable feedback. This leads to decisions based on information that’s quantifiable, not anecdotal.

“If I say call center response times are bad, I’m complaining,” Wymore says. “But not if I have data showing this. When you tell someone their baby is ugly, it never goes over well. But when you can prove it, that’s a different story.”

NPS often creates a sense of urgency in the surveying organization, leading to needed changes, she adds. “CEOs get nervous when they get a low score because they’re used to getting average member satisfaction scores. It tells them they don’t have loyal members; they have members who put up with them.”

NPS in action
The biggest surprise for Bob Walleser when $1 billion asset Educators Credit Union, Racine, Wis., introduced NPS was the detailed information members provided when surveyed. Members addressed everything from bike racks to new branch locations, says Walleser, vice president of branch operations.


“Promoters” are great, but they don’t necessarily use credit unions as their primary financial institution (PFI), says Jon Haller, CUNA’s director of corporate and market research.

PFI members use more services (3.6) than strictly “loyal” (3.2) or average (2.4) members, notes Haller, citing CUNA’s 2009-2010 National Member Survey Report. So in addition to the Net Promoter Score (NPS) ultimate question, he suggests asking:

  •  Is the credit union your PFI; and
  • How likely are you to use the credit union for your next financial services need?

“NPS is an excellent measure of loyalty,” he says. “But you can reach even stronger penetration levels if loyal members also turn to you as their primary provider. Be members’ PFI, and they’ll come to you first.”

Haller says certain product combinations correspond with PFI status—namely a car loan with checking and online banking. Mortgages, in contrast, have a limited impact on creating high loyalty versus other products.

Providing an experience not available elsewhere also boosts PFI relationships, says Angela Prestil, director of sales culture development for CUNA’s Creating Member Loyalty™ System of Training.

“Members want a value-added experience,” she says. “Many credit unions have good member service, but they also have opportunities to develop relationships. ‘We smile bigger’ doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Not all responses were positive, he admits. But that’s not necessarily a bad sign, Wymore notes: “If members don’t complain, they don’t care.”

Educators eased into NPS after its CEO, Eugene Szymczak, read Reichheld’s Harvard Business Review article, “The One Number You Need to Grow.” In 2006, the credit union conducted its first survey in conjunction with a local university.

But the paper-based mailings were too infrequent (annual), took too long to compile (three to four months), and didn’t allow for timely responses to members’ concerns. So in 2008, the credit union teamed with Member Loyalty Group, a Chicago-based credit union service organization (CUSO) Educators formed with five other credit unions.

Member Loyalty Group sends quarterly relationship surveys to gauge member loyalty, provides weekly surveys examining specific member transactions, and compiles the survey data. It charges an annual fee based on membership size, says Rebecca Secor, the CUSO’s program director.

Educators employs a “member experience auditor” to oversee its NPS program, analyze survey data, and identify ways to improve member loyalty.

“We made the data actionable,” Walleser explains. “We audit the member experience just like we audit our financials. The score isn’t the most important thing. What’s important is how you create promoters and move passives and detractors up a notch.”

Educators’ branch staff experiment with ways to improve member loyalty, create promoters, and, as a result, improve their NPS. At one branch, lack of convenience creates detractors because there’s no drive-through lane, Walleser relates. So branch staff are creating a concierge service for members who don’t want to get out of their cars.

“If members have small kids in the car, they’ll be able to call ahead and we’ll have the transaction ready when they arrive,” he explains. “Staff will run it out to the parking lot. It’s one thing the branch is doing to create promoters.”

Gain employee buy-in
Creating promoters among members depends on having staff who embrace NPS, Walleser says. Educators creates staff buy-in by:

  • Linking NPS results to compensation. The credit union links bonuses to five measures: NPS, asset growth, loan growth, membership growth, and return on assets (ROA). NPS accounts for half of the bonus amount, indicating its high importance.
    But linking NPS results to compensation too soon, Secor warns, puts credit unions at risk of losing credibility and staff buy-in to the program. “Get your feet wet first and understand how your scores are affected by what’s happening within the organization and the outside environment.”
    Once this happens, she suggests linking compensation to the overall relationship score. “That’s most effective because everything at the credit union impacts the relationship score—service at branches, phone service, the Web site, even marketing communications. That way, everyone is in it together.”
  • Reporting continuing NPS results. Educators posts a “dashboard” on its intranet detailing scores at each branch, along with financials.
  • Meeting with branch staff. The member experience auditor meets with branch staff monthly to discuss NPS and brainstorm member loyalty initiatives.
  • Recognizing top performers. Educators highlights staff who receive positive comments in surveyresponses. It also awards a plaque to the branch with the highest year-end NPS, and the branch with the most improved year-to-year score.
  • Tying NPS to growth in important financial measures, such as ROA and member growth. This isn’t easy to do. “We see it directionally. The higher the score, the better the organization seems to do,” Walleser explains. “But we want to nail that down. Then we’ll be better able to get buy-in.”

Toward that aim, Educators involves its chief financial officer in NPS “to connect the dots. That’s our starting point. We’ll see where that takes us.”

Focusing too much on the score is another challenge, notes Doug Marshall, chief marketing officer and senior vice president, retail branches, for $2.2 billion asset Addison Avenue Federal Credit Union, Palo Alto, Calif.

“The good thing about NPS is that it’s one number,” he says. “The bad thing about NPS is that it’s one number. It would be easy to get so preoccupied with the number that we forget the ultimate goal: Make a better member experience so members do more with us.”

This requires using NPS data to prioritize and develop projects, considering the member experience when launching new programs, reinforcing the program’s importance with staff, communicating with members, and explaining how staff can affect the score. “We want to be proactive; changing things before members ask for them,” he says.

At first, it’s easy to dismiss what members tell you, notes Diana Dykstra, CEO of $525 million asset San Francisco Fire Credit Union, citing a phone tree members “hated.” Due to NPS, the credit union made a simple change to its phone tree—providing the option to speak to an employee right away—that made all the difference. “Members’ perception is our reality,” says Dykstra.

In 2004, San Francisco Fire’s NPS was 52. Now it’s 78. Although the credit union spends nothing on marketing in San Francisco’s “noisy and expensive media market,” Dykstra says, its membership grew by more than 1,300 in 2008, a 6% increase (versus 1.6% for all credit unions, CUNA reports). “It’s about making the changes members want.”


  • CUNA:
  1. 2009-2010 Environmental Scan Report:, enter 29901 in the product finder.
  2. 2009-2010 National Member Survey Report:, enter 28532 in the product finder.
  3. Creating Member Loyalty™ System of Training: