This year, I celebrated two decades of employment in the credit union industry. In my tenure, I have experienced CU*Answers growing from a regional core provider serving predominantly the Midwest, to a national player with the fastest-growing core suite in the industry.
During those twenty years, I have noticed significant transformations in how credit unions shop for core data processing solutions. Some are relatively subtle and some are not so subtle, but all need to be acknowledged and incorporated into an effective sales strategy.
Chris Smigiel, National Core Sales Manager, has been on the core sales front lines for almost two decades as well and as such, has a wealth of experience and expertise. I sat down with him to discuss my observations and get his input on the developing due diligence process.
A transcript of my interview with Chris follows.
SCOTT COLLINS: Good morning, Chris. Thank you for joining me today. I’m excited to talk about how you have seen the core sales process evolve during your time in the credit union industry.
How have you seen the lead generation process change since you began selling core data processing?
CHRIS SMIGIEL: As the number of credit unions has decreased over time, there seems to be a much more guarded mentality for credit unions talking to vendors. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the business just becoming busier and credit union executives having less time available, or it could be caused by a previous business relationship that soured.
Either way, our team relies heavily on word-of-mouth interactions that our credit union prospects are having with their peers. As the number of credit unions decreases, there seems to be a heavier dependence on peer feedback. Luckily, in the time that I have worked at CU*Answers, our footprint has expanded substantially which opens our team to a wider market than it did 15 years ago. Plus, CU*Answers is blessed with a very strong peer community of credit unions that champion the Cooperative movement.
As a cooperative, I know that we have always felt that trade shows were a way to give back to the communities, boards, and staff of our customer-owner credit unions versus lead generation events per se’. How have these shows changed over the years and what was your overall impression of the virtual events that were held during the pandemic?
I would have thought with the consolidation of credit union leagues there would be fewer tradeshows to attend, but that does not seem to be the case. We are attending more events than we ever have before and—although they may not be the greatest sales lead generator—they are absolutely a great way to keep in touch with our partners.
As far as virtual trade shows, we had a unanimous thumbs down from our sales team. We’re glad to be back in person!
When a prospect asks “When is the right time to start my due diligence process?” what would you recommend as a best practice and has that recommendation changed at all over the past few decades?
The recommendation has definitely changed. Where it used to be a credit union could start their core due diligence 12-16 months in advance of a core project, we are now recommending a minimum of 24 months to credit unions.
For one, the number of viable core processors has shrunk in the past decade and the conversion spots available fill up quite quickly. Secondly, credit unions have added layers of complexity to their vendor relationships over time and it takes considerable work to change core vendors because they touch so many of these other vendor relationships.
It was obvious, as the country was navigating the pandemic, that it would be more difficult to see people face-to-face for things like demos and follow-up discussions. Yet, CU*Answers had two of our most successful sales years in our 53-year history. What were the biggest changes that you and the team had to make to keep the momentum going?
The two biggest things we kept in mind were to be in constant communication with our prospective partners and be flexible with their schedules.
We made great strides to come up with new core demo styles so a credit union wouldn’t have to spend 6-8 hours on a web conference. We had great feedback on our approach to core demonstrations and the flexibility that we offered to credit unions and I think we saw that in the number of sales over the past couple of years.
When we first entered the credit union industry, we were mainly working in the Midwest region. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to work in areas all over the country. Do you feel like the due diligence process used by credit unions varies based on where the credit union is located geographically?
There is definitely a local flair to how credit unions approach due diligence, yet there is a familiarity with each region as well. Where some geographies may be very compliance-focused, another geography may be tech-forward.
One thing I see in common with all of our credit union communities is that reliance on who else partners with your firm. So, making those first couple of sales in a new market is very tough. I applaud our CUSO for its determination to expand into new markets and the resources we’ve dedicated to proving to the credit union in their markets that we are investing with them.
A follow-up to that question: how does the due diligence process differ based on the size of the credit union?
We usually see additional layers of due diligence with larger credit unions just because they want to involve more of their team in the core search. This can equate to additional demos, sidebar conversations with credit union leaders, and a longer process.
Larger institutions can also have a more complex vendor management process to consider when they are looking at new core processors. Knowing who those vendors are and whether the credit union wants to bring them along when they choose a new core can add some complexity to the due diligence process.
I appreciate the insight that you have shared today. One final question: if there was one thing that jumps out at you as the biggest difference between selling core two decades ago versus today, what would that be?
Something I have noticed over the past several years is how many credit unions are engaging third-party consultants for their core search process. A decade ago, we would typically only engage with consultants with larger credit unions, but now we are communicating with consultants for all-size institutions.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, in many ways working with consultants that we are familiar with often standardizes the core search process and it’s easier for our team to keep the process moving forward. But we also still love working with credit unions on an individual basis as well.
Thank you so much for your time, Chris. It has been interesting to look back at how this system has evolved, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here!