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Recovering from Wall St.’s fall

The Wall Street meltdown destroyed the trust customers had in financial institu­tions. The disaster requires almost complete re-positioning and messaging to consumers by the surviving banks, brokerages and insur­ance companies.

It’s time to rethink fundamental market­ing concepts, in light of widespread feel­ings of helplessness, fear, loss, anger and finger-pointing. Consumers are reeling over losses and struggling to salvage savings or portfolios. The task of rebuilding trust and growth will require much more than a snappy new tagline or a shiny new spokesperson. It will demand a basic change in how financial services firms address customers. Since Sep­tember 15, nobody believes that a banker, broker or insurance agent can protect them. Many consumers blame their trusted advisors for getting them into trouble.

Financial service marketers have a lot of work to do to rebuild credibility and reduce defections. The first step calls for an apol­ogy. Don’t whine about your own losses or try to appear to be fellow victims. Your customers see you as the bad guy. Septem­ber 15 was an emotional flashback to 9/11 with more personal consequences for more people. You cannot swim against this per­ceptual tsunami.

Explain which challenges — sub-prime debt, credit default swaps or low liquidity — affect your operations. As soon as the government figures out its plan, align your services and offerings with it. Offer free consultations or services, extended hours and planning resources to retirees, parents paying for col­lege, newlyweds or new homeowners.

This is not the time for excuses. Nobody will buy the reasons why you didn’t know what was going on or why you didn’t proac­tively warn your customers or advise them to move earlier. Focus on digging out. Offering ideas that can help people get back on their feet will help you regain credibility.

Highlight any services that can help people recover. Customers will appreciate special offers, clear education and direction.

Position yourself as part of the solution. The biggest element driving the panic was the sense that individuals and even institu­tions could do nothing but watch the domi­noes fall. Offer clear advice on what to do, based on distinct investment objectives. Don’t hedge, and don’t equivocate.

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