If there’s one thing that stands out when looking at the results of this year’s Report Card on Banks and Credit Unions, it’s that the satisfaction level among the financial advisors with the credit unions in the survey is improving dramatically.

For the past several years, advisors with Vancouver-based Vancouver City Savings Credit Union and Edmonton-based Servus Credit Union Ltd. had rated their firms much lower than did their counterparts at the Big Six banks. In fact, last year, the two credit unions combined saw 20 ratings drop by half a point or more while seeing increases of half a point or more in only three categories between the two firms.

This year, the story is quite the opposite. Vancity saw ratings increase by half a point or more in nine categories; Servus saw ratings increase by at least that margin in eight categories. In contrast, the two firms saw their ratings drop by half a point or more in six categories, combined. As a result, the credit unions are catching up to their banking counterparts in the overall ratings.

Many of these improvements can be attributed to the credit unions’ increased focus on wealth management — and on providing their advisors with support in several related departments.

Specifically, advisors at Vancity noticed improvements in the “support for helping clients accumulate assets for retirement” and “support for helping clients plan for post-retirement income” categories. Says a Vancity advisor in British Columbia: “There’s a lot of training and encouragement for us to attend certain courses about retirement.”

In addition, in an effort to complement the credit union’s enhanced wealth-management strategy, Vancity’s financial planning department has put together financial planning guides and standardized tools for advisors to use with member clients.

“This was an area we thought of as key to the success of wealth management,” says Michael Atkinson, director of investment solutions with Vancity, “and there was a real gap for our members in making sure they were ready for retirement.”

Servus’s renewed focus on wealth management also has had a positive impact on its advisors’ perception of the support the firm provides in helping clients plan for post-retirement income. The credit union held a two-day workshop for advisors in its branches in November 2010 that focused on retirement planning and tax strategies for retirement income. After the workshop, advisors were given a list of things to work on.

Furthermore, Servus has introduced planning tools and several calculators. The credit union also has assigned more support staff to coach advisors and to make routine, biweekly calls.

“It’s great to see that we’re definitely on the right track,” says a Servus advisor in Alberta, “and to have that support and expertise and grow our market share.”

Servus advisors also reported significant improvements on the financial planning front — the rating for that category improved by 1.2 points to 6.0 this year from 4.8 last year.

Currently, Servus advisors are using various software programs as a result of the firm’s 2008 merger with Community Savings of Red Deer, Alta., and Common Wealth Credit Union of Lloydminster, Alta. However, that situation will change soon, says Randy Biberdorf, vice president of wealth management with Servus: “We’ll be aligning with one consistent technology solution to support financial planning. I think what you’re hearing from advisors is they see all this happening. The feedback’s been extremely positive.”

Regarding the performance of branch managers, the feedback from Vancity advisors was very positive. This year, Vancity had the highest rating of all the deposit-taking institutions in the “your branch manager” category — and its 9.1 rating was a full-point increase from last year’s rating of 8.1.

Says a Vancity advisor in B.C.: “My branch manager supports us by taking on member complaints directly and helps with marketing ideas as well as setting up seminars.”

Again, the reason behind this improvement was Vancity’s increased emphasis on wealth management. In the past year, Vancity has provided a lot of support for branch managers on how to run this aspect of the business — and the credit union has been stressing wealth management as a primary strategic objective, Atkinson says: “That has been looked at in how the retail [branch] managers interact with the wealth-management staff. They recognize it’s a much higher priority for Vancity, and it’s an important part of our business.”

Another area in which Vancity was commended is the “online account access for clients” category, as the firm’s rating rose to 7.6 from 6.5 last year. A new platform for members’ access was introduced as a pilot project in early 2010 and launched officially at the beginning of this year.

“When it was a pilot, a lot of people were having problems with it. But not anymore,” says a Vancity advisor in B.C., referring to certain accessibility and password-related issues that were fixed earlier this year.

Vancity advisors were also impressed with their credit union’s efforts to bolster its public image. (See story on page 19.) Atkinson says one of Vancity’s goals is to have an impact on the community with the products and services it sells.

In the past year, Atkinson says, Vancity has been able to articulate that goal better by providing more exposure to socially responsible investments through its strategic relationship with IA Clarington Investments Inc. (Vancity sold its mutual funds company, Inhance Investment Management Inc., to IA Clarington in early 2010, but retained a portfolio-management role as part of the deal.)

The increased distribution of SRI-enhanced mutual funds, as well as the introduction of certain segregated funds, also has had a positive impact on how Vancity’s advisors viewed the “quality of [their] firm’s product offering,” as they gave their firm a rating of 8.1 in the category — a steep increase from 7.3 in 2010.

Servus advisors who have had the time to settle into the new entity following the 2008 merger also are happier with their credit union’s public image. Says a Servus advisor in Alberta: “Our image is great because we’re heavily involved in the community.”

Last year, Servus invested $2 million into community activities and projects, such as a youth financial literacy program and local United Way events. In addition to giving back to the community, Servus has also lined up 800 to 900 local events, such as member appreciation days.

“Going back to the merger, it’s about pulling our brand together and keeping it consistent across the organization,” says Michael Dickenson, Servus’s director of corporate communications. “And we’re still very much in the midst of that.”

Servus advisors also reported greater satisfaction with their product offering and how quickly new investment products are being brought to market. Biberdorf says that in the past year, Credential Asset Management Inc. and Credential Securities Inc. , both of which provide credit unions with a vast range of products, have been proactive about introducing new products — and communicating them to advisors.

“We’re lucky because Credential has 4,000 mutual funds,” says a Servus advisor in Alberta, “so we can pretty much offer anything.”

All of the efforts these two credit unions have made in the past year have led to significant rises in category ratings across the board, as well as improved overall ratings. For instance, Vancity’s IE rating, which is the average of all categories, rose to 7.8 from 7.4 last year; Servus’s IE rating edged up to 7.1 from 6.9 in 2010.

In addition, this year — for the first time since 2006 — a credit union tops more than one category. Vancity received the highest rating in both the branch manager category and the “firm’s diversity and inclusion strategy” category.

However, although both credit unions have made big leaps in many areas this year, there still are some things they need to work on, their advisors say. For example, Servus advisors say that the credit union’s “support for tax planning” leaves them wanting more. In fact, the credit union’s rating in the category dropped sharply to 5.6 from 6.7 last year.

“There are [tax] specialists at the head office,” says a Servus advisor in Alberta, “but access is an issue and their solutions are not good.”

The picture isn’t all rosy for Vancity, either. Advisors with that firm say there is little marketing support available to them — and they also express dissatisfaction with their firm’s back office.

“[Support] could be stronger,” says a Vancity advisor in B.C. “The support is geared toward investment advisors rather than investment specialists.” IE