YAKIMA -- After 14 years banking with Bank of America, Carol Pimentel was ready for an alternative.
She didn't like the five-day holds on her financial aid checks, having fees to keep a savings account or to receive printed bank statements, or the confusing changes that required hours of reading bank documentation.
She switched to Solarity Credit Union in Yakima three months ago.
Pimentel was familiar with credit unions -- her parents have banked with one for years -- but her frustrations put her over the edge.
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"I got tired of dealing with it," said Pimentel, a 41-year-old Yakima resident who is studying accounting at Yakima Valley Community College.
While the concept of credit unions -- nonprofit, membership-driven financial institutions -- dates back decades, the industry may look back at 2011 as the year that consumers nationwide took notice.
"Our efforts in raising awareness in credit unions have been extensive but only when consumers decide they want to look," said David Bennett, a spokesman for the Northwest Credit Union Association (NCUA), a trade group of 168 credit unions in Washington and Oregon.
Indeed, many larger banks drew more ire from consumers in 2011 with an increasing number of fees for its products and services.
Meanwhile, consumers and other groups, such as the Occupy movements nationwide, pushed consumers to leave big banks. In November, Kristen Christian, a Los Angeles business owner, organized Bank Transfer Day to encourage consumers to pull their money out of large banks and into credit unions and other locally owned financial institutions.
In Washington, credit unions reported a collective gain of 1,430 new members, according to the NCUA.
Washington saw a year-over-year gain of 121,339 members in 2010, NCUA data showed. Data for 2011 is not yet available, but Bennett expects that credit unions easily will surpass those numbers.
A corner on customer service
Recent data show that credit unions have the corner on customer service.
Credit unions were ranked No. 1 in the American Consumer Satisfaction Index with an score of 87 out of 100 points. In contrast, the nation's largest banks scored in the 70s.
Banks are responding by shifting their marketing messages to highlight advantages that come with doing business with a larger financial institution, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com, a consumer finance website.
Among those advantages is a complete suite of services, such as business and investment banking, wealth management and mobile and online banking, he said.
The pain larger banks ultimately feel from the growing popularity of credit unions depends on the type of customers that make the switch.
A national poll from Bankrate.com in March 2011 showed 75 percent of consumers making more than $75,000 indicated they would consider switching financial institutions.
"The day they start losing profitable, mass-affluent consumers is the day (larger banks) become much more concerned," he said.
But credit unions know that goodwill only can go so far.
Credit unions will need to work on meeting demand for up-to-date mobile and web-based banking services, something that bigger banks have long had, said Worthington of Solarity Credit Union.
The credit union, for example, is looking to launch a new web-based banking system that would allow its members to track all financial accounts, even ones from other institutions.
Such technology has been available for years at larger institutions such as Bank of America, she said.
Providing that technology -- along with changing regulations -- was a driving factor in the formation of Solarity, which happened in October after the merger of Yakima Valley Credit Union and Catholic Credit Union.
"We have to be able to provide those sophisticated tools from a technology standpoint," she said. "It's not about having a branch in every corner but closing loans from your smartphone."
While there is an audience that demands more mobile and web-based banking tools, there still is demand for face-to-face customer service, said HAPO's Mitchell.
That's why the credit union is still building more branches, including a third Yakima branch in West Valley that is scheduled to open in March.
New branches will be essential as momentum seen at the end of 2011 continues into the new year, he said.
"I think we're expecting increases across the board whether it's in deposits or loans," he said. "The locations are important for people. We want to put our branches in people's local communities."
When Pimentel, the YVCC student, switched to Solarity, she soon discovered another perk of making the switch:
"Solarity's closer to where I live," she said.