Restoring trust in financial services

Earlier this year, we conducted a survey comparing attitudes of US consumers and financial service industry employees that showed consumers have emotionally disengaged from financial institutions; they simply don't trust them anymore.

Earlier this year, we conducted a survey comparing attitudes of US consumers and financial service industry employees that showed consumers have emotionally disengaged from financial institutions; they simply don't trust them anymore. The survey also captured dramatic disagreement between the two groups about the economic forecast; the services these companies should offer to help their customers; and what financial service companies should do to restore consumer trust. The findings were confirmed by a recent CNN poll that found Americans are more confident in the White House and Congress to deal with the economy than Wall Street or the banks.

As the nation's financial capital shifts from New York City to Washington, where federal officials decide the future of countless financial services firms, the industry must rethink its approach to customer relationships and communications. To reconnect and restore the confidence that is crippling the economy, the industry should consider adopting the political campaign tactics that brought their new bosses to power. Specifically, this means companies must:

Shore up their base: Make sure employees understand what you're doing and mobilize them to become company ambassadors. Countless studies show that customers generally rate banks more positively if they maintain staff over time. Customers trust employees like customer service representative, but the study suggests financial institutions are underutilizing these credible resources.

Triangulate: Do the research to understand what customers really want. When you know what they want, it's easy to address their concerns. Financial service employees believe customers want improved service, but in fact, they want banks to stop granting fat bonuses to their executives.

Distinguish yourself as a leader: The only messages that will matter in the current economy are those that align with stakeholder needs – and position the bank as understanding how to best help its customers survive the economic downturn.

Redefine communications: Don't rely exclusively on advertising to communicate with customers. Banks must make better use of social media, which allows them to communicate unfiltered with stakeholder audiences.

Communicate aggressively: In political campaigns, you only win if you're top-of-mind. So, banks must be top-of-mind with their stakeholders to maintain customer loyalty and market share. This means communicating through a variety of channels – but mainly through earned media, such as PR.

Build an organization: In politics, the so-called “ground game” involves mobilizing resources in each community. In today's banking environment, it means generating grassroots efforts to demonstrate your institution's commitment.

For a politician, a vote is someone who believes in you. But it takes a lot of listening and talking for that to happen. While the economy challenges everyone, banks can strengthen their customer relationships if they demonstrate value to them today. The efforts undertaken now will be rewarded with renewed trust and that ultimate vote of confidence – more business.

Matt Wolfrom is EVP at Cohn & Wolfe, leading its corporate sector.

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