March Madness, or how to extend the financial services crisis

If the Federal Government was in the road construction business it would currently be erecting huge stop signs in front of every bank in America. These signs would not simply read “Stop,” they would say “Stop marketing.” Also, at regular intervals other signs would appear with these words: “Stop all employee bonuses.” And a few additional signs would sprout up: “Stop all sponsorships, clients events and void all event contracts.”

By simple gut reckoning I estimate that, since last fall, billions of impressions have been generated by the government and the mainstream press pounding the same message into minds across the land and the world, namely, “bankers are greedy idiots who zip around aimlessly on corporate jets and make billions in bonuses while the poor taxpayer is left holding the bag.”

The financial services industry has listened to the constant media yapping about how TARP participants should not market themselves anymore or pay bonuses to anyone, and even non-TARP concerns have been scared into silence. For added irony, the one group that is marketing daily to around 30 million Americans on the Web is the Obama administration.

Score: 100 for the Obama team, 0 for Financial Services. Talk about March Madness! 

Here are just a few examples of how poorly financial services has dribbled the ball. I am a longtime Smith Barney customer. Since the market began tanking months ago, I have not seen a single communication on the Web or in the mail telling me what’s going on at the place I park most of my investments. I asked senior folks there why, and their response was that I did receive an offset letter amid the other inserts in my monthly statement a while ago.

Who opens statements anymore and looks at the inserts? I go to the Smith Barney site everyday. Surely they could insert a personal message telling me something? A personalized letter once in awhile would be comforting too. 

The banks are, for the most part, communications-numb. A few think that one or two print ads saying they are still in business do the trick.

A rematch is now called for. The financial services team needs to communicate directly with its employees and customers. 

Long overdue is a comprehensive communications strategy that is not much different from what President Obama’s team does every day. Put in a financial services context here is a six-step suggested plan of attack:

Get every customer’s e-mail address now. It is not acceptable to have only a small percentage of your customer’s e-mail addresses. If you have to call every customer to get their e-mail, do so.

Make it easy to respond. Every interaction with a customer or prospect should include a clear request for their e-mail if not already on file. 

Regularly update both employees and customers by e-mail with very specific facts on how your business is doing. 

Encourage feedback.

Address the bonus issue head on. Remind employees and inform customers that you pay appropriate bonuses to those employees who achieve and surpass defined and measurable goals. 

Provide contact information on state and federal legislators. Encourage employees and customers to e-mail and call their representatives and stop listening to the sound bites.  

One quote that makes perfect sense in today’s environment is the line attributed to the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who told the Green Bay Packers at the beginning of each new season: “The best defense is a great offense.”

Get your message out now. Get it out weekly. Take the playbook right out of Team Obama’s hands and do exactly what they do, but with your mission, goals and deliverables. It would be Madness in March not to.

Steve Cone is EVP/senior advisor at Epsilon. Reach him at [email protected].

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