Bankers go to boot camp

USAA employee Jessica Allison (foreground) at the company’s boot camp-style event

USAA bank president David Bohne (foreground) at the company’s boot camp-style event

It's around 4 a.m., and a yellow school bus slowly rolls down a deserted street. The bus is packed with nervous-looking bankers in black shirts and shorts. Once they reach a muddy field in Texas, they and hundreds others face hours of hellish training, all before the sun rises.

The bus rounds a corner and comes to a stop in a dark parking lot. The bus doors open with a hiss. USAA training day has begun.

“MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!”

A number of drill instructors dressed in military uniform jump aboard the bus and scream at the people inside to get out. Others bang on the sides of the vehicle, then yell at the bankers as they sprint across the lot in the darkness towards the empty field. The noise of gunfire roars through loudspeakers, and smoke machines and strobe lights simulate combat conditions.

The trainees form up and the drill instructors immediately get right in their faces.

“YOU THINK I’M PLAYING WITH YOU?”

Those whose posture isn’t perfect are "corrected:" they're told to hit the dirt, to do push-ups. And they're yelled at some more.

“PUSH! PUSH! PUSH! THAT’S TOO SLOW!”

It is not like this at Citibank, but these bankers work for USAA, which serves military clients and their families, and demands that its employees know what their special clientele goes through. This well-attended early morning boot camp is part of these USAA staffers' educational process.

“Just a small glimpse of this is eye-opening,” says Jessica Allison, who works in USAA's real estate division.

A few minutes later she gets more than a glimpse. A trainer orders her to name the Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s top officer. The answer doesn’t come fast enough, so she’s directed earthwards, where she's instructed to do a push-up as she yells out each word of the correct answer, twice.

Down, up. “ADMIRAL!” Down, up. “JONATHAN!” Down, up. “GREENERT!”

This isn't just a gimmick. A USAA client might call customer service for help having just gone through a morning like this. USAA wants to make sure the banker picking up the phone understands the unusual struggles the customer on the other end faces.

A singular focus on the military community is a key difference between USAA and other banks. Another is how USAA customers feel about the bank. In an age where griping about banks is the norm, USAA’s customers -- which the company calls members -- like the organization, a lot. It regularly shows up at or near the top of various customer service rankings.

That connection manifests itself in surprising ways. Between interviews with USAA employees, I noticed an older couple slowly looking through some of the artifacts and pictures the company has on display for tourists. Yes, tourists. The company says members visit headquarters often, to the point where it spent some money to put up a proper museum-like display.

I’d never heard of anyone wanting to tour a bank or insurance company headquarters. In fact, when I called some other banks to ask if they offered smiliar courtesies, the response went along the lines of, "You want to tour our corporate headquarters? Really?"

I asked the couple why they wanted to visit.

“We have a lot of confidence in them, and so we thought it would be just a neat idea to come by and see. And I’m very impressed. This is very, very impressive,” says Ron Fuller, a veteran and longtime USAA member.

It may sound like a little cultish to tour a bank building, but I kind of get it. Both my parents were in the military, so I’m a member and I’ve seen people get emotional about the company. Often when I swipe my USAA credit card, people see the rippled eagle logo and they strike up a conversation about how happy they are to be members. That just doesn’t happen with my Discover card.

Customer experience consultant Bruce Temkin says USAA’s customers appreciate the banks's singular focus.

“If you serve just one type of customer, it’s easy to understand their needs and serve them better,” Temkin says.

USAA's focus, and its customers' loyalty, helped the financial services company thrive, even in the downturn. But the megabanks are looking at that loyal, stable client base with envious eyes, and they're attacking USAA's turf. The big banks want to shed less profitable customers and replace them with steady earners that could generate solid profits over time.

“Military jobs are typically long term, very secure, very little risk of a person going out and losing that job,” says Morningstar bank analyst Jim Sinegal. “It’s steady pay; it’s generally direct deposited.”

Military Money:
Behind the front lines of banking and financial services for service members, families and vets. Marketplace's Mark Garrison reports on the surprising ties between our nation's military and the banking sector.

USAA is an odd player in the financial world: it's basically an insurance company that got into banking 30 years ago. So the bank is relatively young and tiny compared to America’s financial giants. They're using their size advantage to offer some attractive deals to servicemen and women and their families. And they’re stealing pages from USAA’s playbook, crowing about hiring veterans.

USAA is fighting back. It launched a national advertising campaign recently, having eschewed almost all advertising throughout its history. Its marketing efforts look puny when compared to the competition's. But it has a secret weapon: that unique understanding of the military customer.

“From a pride standpoint, we think we do it better than anybody and that we want to make sure that the competitors don’t get a foothold in this group,” says bank president David Bohne.

Which brings us back to that early morning boot camp experience, which ends in a run. I jog along, getting called out once by a drill instructor for messing up their formation as I weave in and out of the lines interviewing people.

“I’m hanging in there,” banker Jessica Allison pants as we near the end.

She’s being modest, as she’s no stranger to a tough workout and run. But she’s not used to such an early start. Or the torrent of drill instructor abuse.

The men and women in uniform applaud the sweaty bankers as they finish up. After Allison guzzled water, I’m curious if the information she suffered for earlier stuck with her. I ask her who the Chief of Naval Operations is.

“Admiral Jonathan Greenert,” she answers correctly and without hesitation.

Armed with new knowledge of the stress and strain of military life, Allison says she’s now better able to serve clients. That’s vital to USAA’s future, defending its military territory by knowing it best.

It is 3 in the morning, definitely not banker’s hours. I’ve set multiple alarms to make sure I get up. I absolutely need to be on time, because the guy I’m meeting at USAA does not tolerate tardiness.

That’s Gil Lombana an Army reserve drill sergeant. And he’s just warming up.

There are buses full of bankers on the way. He and others in uniform are about to give them several hours of hell.

As each bus rolls up, drill instructors bang on it. The USAA employees get off fast.

They run through the early morning darkness to a field as smoke machines, strobe lights and loudspeakers simulate combat. The drill instructors get right in their face.

It is not like this at Citibank. USAA bankers go through this so they can really know their customers. Among them, Jessica Allison, who works in real estate, not a field where she’s likely to learn the name of the Navy’s top officer.

The answer doesn’t come fast enough.

The drill instructor makes her do a push-up for each word of the correct answer, twice.

There are also waves of sit-ups and side straddle hops, or what civilians call jumping jacks.

Let’s step away from boot camp for a bit and take a look inside headquarters.

I run into Ron and Alice Fuller, both veterans and longtime USAA members. They’re looking at artifacts on display for tourists. Yes, tourists. I’d never heard of anyone touring a bank or insurance headquarters, so I ask why.

Ron Fuller: We have a lot of confidence in them, and so we thought it would be just a neat idea to come by and see. And I’m very impressed. This is very, very impressive.

It may sound like a little cultish to tour a bank building, but I kinda get it. Both my parents were in the military, so I’m a member and I’ve seen people get emotional about the company. Often when I swipe my USAA credit card, people see the rippled eagle logo and they wanna talk about how happy they are to be members. That just doesn’t happen with my Discover card.

Part of what members love about USAA is the customer service. Year after year, folks in this call center put them at or near the top of various client satisfaction rankings. Customer experience consultant Bruce Temkin says a key to USAA’s success is its singular focus on the military.

Bruce Temkin: If you serve just one type of customer, it’s easy to understand their needs and serve them better.

That helped USAA thrive, even in the downturn. But now it’s got a problem: big banks are attacking its turf. Morningstar analyst Jim Sinegal says megabanks want military clients, who are stable and profitable.

Jim Sinegal: Military jobs are typically long term, very secure, very little risk of a person going out and losing that job. It’s steady pay, it’s generally direct deposited.

USAA is odd in the financial world, basically an insurance company that got into banking 30 years ago. The bank is relatively young and tiny compared to America’s financial giants. They’re now stealing pages from USAA’s playbook, crowing about hiring veterans and offering military deals. USAA faces a tough battle and it’s scaling up and fighting back.

It recently launched national advertising, after doing practically none in its history. Their marketing is puny compared to banking’s giants. But when it comes to understanding the military customer, bank president David Bohne says other banks will never match USAA.

David Bohne: From a pride standpoint, we think we do it better than anybody and that we wanna make sure that the competitors don’t get a foothold in this group.

Which brings us back to boot camp, which ends in a run. I jog alongside Jessica Allison.

Allison: I’m hanging in there.

I got called out for messing up their lines, I’m trying not to get anybody in trouble. I’m gonna keep to the sidelines.

Drill instructors applaud the sweaty bankers as they finish. I’m curious if the info she suffered for stuck. So who is the Chief of Naval Operations, again?

Allison: Adm. Jonathan Greenert.

Correct. Armed with new knowledge of the stress of military life, Allison says she’s now better able to serve clients. That’s vital to USAA’s future, defending its military territory by knowing it best. In San Antonio, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

USAA bank president David Bohne (foreground) at the company’s boot camp-style event

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