PENN STATE SCRANTON’S BUSINESS CLUB BANKS ON ITS PANELISTS FOR LOCAL BUSINESS

By: Erika Winklebleck

Sometimes, the most valuable lessons students learn happen outside of the classroom, rather than inside. Members of Penn State Scranton’s Business and Communications Club learned that first-hand when they undertook a project earlier this year to help NET Credit Union in Scranton.

Club members, along with faculty and staff from Penn State Scranton collaborated and provided valuable information to NET Credit Union regarding consumer banking habits.

The project began when John Drake, director of Penn State Scranton’s Center for Business Development and Community Outreach, collaborated with the CEO of NET Credit Union, Clarence Baltrusaitis, offering an opportunity for the credit union to use Penn State Scranton business students to help with market research and data collecting. 

The project involved finding the right students for the job, having them form a focus group, and then collecting the type of data the credit union was seeking and then compiling and presenting that data to company officials.

Frank Sorokach, instructor of business and economics at Penn State Scranton, offered the opportunity to Penn State Scranton’s Business Club. Sorokach was implemental in advising and directing students along the way if challenges arose and would throw challenges at club members to prepare them for the task.

Baltrusaitis and NET Credit Union Marketing Director Mileise Sabbatini-Cooney were extremely accommodating and helpful, even attending one of the club’s meetings to talk directly to the student club members.

To best prepare for the tasks they were about to embark on, and to ensure that their approach was strategic and would get the best data possible, club members asked Baltrusaitis numerous questions about what he desired from them, including:  preferred completion date; goals; quantity of questions; demographics and more.

The topic was well-aligned with the club members’ majors – business and corporate communications.

Baltrusaitis impressed the students with his speaking skills and had them clinging to every word, and the club members enthusiastically took on the task of meeting NET’s needs over the next several weeks.

PERSONAL GROWTH

This project also proved to be educational for the club members’ own personal banking habits. They truly felt like this was going to assist the banking community and its current and potential clients exponentially.

They felt motivated to understand the essence of the project as a whole:  educational development; personal development; working through challenges; and serving a local business and community.

BEGINNING STAGES

Focus groups typically consist of panelists from diverse age groups and backgrounds who generally do not know what will be discussed, thus leaving it as a spontaneous and honest way to collect information within a certain demographic for various businesses and organizations. 

Two weeks following the assignment that was given by NET Credit Union, the students decided to form a mock focus group to test how the questions would flow and what reactions there might be -- also making sure that the questions fit the 45-minute window of time allotted for Q&A.

Many club members had never had experience with focus groups before, so this was untested waters. The mock panel was a small group consisting of students which allowed club members to narrow down questions and make sure they had proper materials available during the actual focus group. They took detailed notes, chiseled down the questions, picked a date to perform the actual focus group and then created invitations.

THE FOCUS GROUP MEETS

When the time arrived for the first focus group meeting, 13 volunteer panelists gathered in the K. Bruce Sherbine Lounge on campus to participate. Panelists were students, faculty, family members and strangers.

The panelists were seated in a circle, a video started recording, and then the questioning began.

Panelists explained their personal banking habits and banking needs. They discussed topics such as “How many times do you check your account balance daily?” or “How many of you go inside of your bank versus online?”

These questions, once answered, would allow NET Credit Union to get a better understanding of banking behavior outside of their own branch and company. Sabbatini-Cooney and her assistant took notes to document both people’s responses and what they said they wanted and needed from a bank.

The summary of the data was based on 14 “yes or no” questions and eight open-ended questions regarding banking visitation and hours. Then the Business Club opened the floor up to NET Credit Union to ask their questions of the panelists. 

The focus group interacted with each other and reviewed their positive and negative experiences with local banks. While discussing those results within the group, the data was captured by members of the Business Club and NET Credit Union via note-taking, video recordings and group discussion.

Business Club members had to move quickly and efficiently in order to compile and provide pertinent information on the results of the focus group to NET Credit Union within the tight timeframe that had been established.

Their entire project had to be completed and presented to the Baltrusaitis and Sabbatini-Cooney within two weeks.   

The club held weekly project meetings and worked vigorously to compile the data, all while the students tackled full-time school, work and other extracurricular commitments.

“The skill that was tested most during this project was our time management, said Brandon Collins, club president. “We were only given a few short weeks to complete the project, so we had to run a tight schedule. From the start, we really had to plan the entire project in advance to make sure we got it done on time.”

Their impressive time management is what many club members believe resulted in a successful and timely presentation that garnered praise from the professionals they helped on this project.

“A portion of [CBDCO’s] efforts go into providing our degree students with real world experiences that allow them to gain a practical application of their classroom education. Their work brings the subject matter to life and provides them with ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Drake explained.

“This linkage is also inspiring for the professors as they see their students connecting with the concepts that they have taught them, while feedback from the businesses result in common themes. They are grateful for the assistance; impressed with the quality of work performed and the end-result; inspired by the energy exuding from the students; and surprised by how much they, the business representatives, learned through the process.”

As director of CBDCO, Drake explained that this project was a great fit with the Center’s mission to serve as a regional resource for individuals, businesses, community organizations, entrepreneurs, and campus students by serving as a bridge to the university’s vast resources.

“These forms of partnerships create a win-win-win situation. We were glad to work with NET Credit Union to connect them with our Business Club and faculty advisors on this project,” he added. “The Center works on aligning projects from many types of organizations with professors from various degree programs on campus and we are always looking for projects that can fit into their course curriculum and/or club activities.”

EVEN NEGATIVE DATA CAN BE VALUABLE

While many of the answers collected in the focus group were mostly positive regarding banks, it soon became clear that for some, there is a misunderstanding and even fear of what a credit union is, and what it can offer its members.

One of the results of the focus group discussion was the need to take the stigma out of the “members-only” credit union philosophy by offering options to local community members who may already qualify to become a member and are unaware of it.

For example, some individuals may be a member of another group that is a member of the credit union, and because of that affiliation, they would qualify for membership as well. For example, a local church may already be a member, therefore, any member of the parish may qualify to become a member as well.

Other information collected gave valuable information on consumers and potential clients for NET Credit Union. 

The most thought-provoking question: “Do you know your credit score?” Baltrusaitis is a huge advocate for a healthy credit score.

Over 60 percent of the panelists did know their credit score. But, this data still astounded some panelists and Clarence Baltrusaitis. The results show a hefty part of the local population may not know their credit score. Those individuals are affected negatively without that extremely valuable information.

However, that information can be tempered with the fact that credit scores may not have the same significance for younger people (ie, college students, those in their early 20s, etc.), who have not yet established credit or know their credit score, as it does for older individuals who have cars, homes, businesses or are paying for their children’s college education.

At the end of the project, Penn State Scranton Business and Communications Club members were honored to have been able to help such a well-established company that has an established record of regularly giving back to the community with free seminars and training regarding personal finances.

NET Credit Union, a 77-year-old company, won the National Marketing Award for Credit Card a few months prior to the start of the Focus Group project. https://www.netcreditunion.com/net-wins-national-marketing-award-credit-card/

Then, this summer, the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association (PCUA) awarded NET Credit Union their Leaders in Financial Literacy Award for student loan seminars presented to their members and preferred partner groups.

NET’s marketing department led numerous presentations throughout 2017 at both its new downtown Scranton branch and its preferred partner groups. In 2016, NET was also awarded as leaders in financial literacy for their Credit Score Seminars. https://www.netcreditunion.com/net-credit-union-accepts-second-financial-literac...

Now, the completed focus group project with the Penn State Scranton Business Club, which had been a huge task, will help NET Credit Union further educate the consumer and the community and attract younger customers, giving those students who worked with them an elevated sense of commitment and community.

“The focus group’s data was very helpful,” Baltrusaitis said. “It was an independent validation of our annual survey results and helped us gather some data that you just can’t get from an online or paper survey.”

Sorokach was also very impressed by the club members and the results they provided. “The group was superb!” he enthused, “and the best of the semester.”

When asked if he felt strongly about these types of assignments, he responded with a resounding ‘YES’, but added, “the problem is, because it is on a volunteer basis, the work needed is very intensive and at times stressful.”

That is often one of the biggest challenges when participating in clubs and extracurricular efforts while also being a full-time Penn State student.

“Working on the focus group project for NET Credit Union was an excellent experience for everyone involved,” Collins stated. “I was incredibly impressed with how well the club worked as a team. The important thing to remember is that no member was forced to participate in the project. It goes to show--even busy college students are willing to go above and beyond to get the most out of their education.”

While the focus group project was a true team undertaking by the club members, everyone involved had individual responsibilities as well.

Collins spearheaded some of the more technical aspects, coordinating sound, video and making sure needed facilities were available. Member Emma Holmes conducted the questioning, while fellow members Stephen Flyte, Patrick Lynott, Samantha Evanina and Erika Winklebleck served as note-takers during the focus group. Another member, Julia Sklareski, compiled all the data to present to Baltrusaitis and Sabbatini-Cooney within one week of the event being completed.

In addition to the invaluable real-world experience they all got, as well as praise from both their advisor and Drake, the group also was recognized by the campus when it received a Club Award, along with the Corporate Communication Club, for this project.

The group’s project was also publicly presented at the campus’ annual Undergraduate Research Fair.

All the members agree that they are grateful to have had the opportunity to provide obtainable and useful information to a local business, and can’t wait for their next project this fall.

Club members were:  Brandon Collins, Steve Flyte, Sam Evanina, Patrick Lynott, Erika Winklebleck, Paul Forbes, Milton Matybel, Emma Holmes, Mario Deprimo, Julia Sklareski, Justin Wasilchak, Javon Nickson, Hannah Woody, Nick Skierkowski, and Michael Carrotto.