Battling Banking's Confidence Crisis

PR departments at Bank of America and other survivors are working overtime to soothe nervous depositorsand explain higher rates and fees

Since the financial crisis erupted, U.S. banks have been notably eager to reassure their customers. You can see it in their advertising, which typically features a variation of: Trust us. Your money is safe.

Behind the scenes, harried spin doctors are enlisting tellers, call-center jockeys, and loan officers in a massive charm offensive. The goal: to persuade people not to yank their cash and stuff it under the mattress. "We need to be sensitive to what's going on with people," says Tom Kelly, a communications manager at JPMorgan Chase (JPM).

Kelly, who says he has been working 13-hour days, describes a "neck-snapping pace." The going got especially hectic on Sept. 25, when JPMorgan agreed to buy Washington Mutual. Kelly knew WaMu branches and call centers on the West Coast were still open. He mass-e-mailed employees a script bewildered WaMu staff could use to soothe customers.

In the days and weeks following the September meltdown, banks from WaMu to Bank of America all have been inundated with calls and branch visits. "There are more [types of] questions asked every day—questions that a year ago wouldn't have been thought of by our customers," says Debra DeCourcy, corporate communications chief with Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB). They have ranged from the basic ("Is my money safe?") to the sophisticated ("Are you well-capitalized?").

Banks have been quick to remind lower- and middle-income customers that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. guarantees savings and checking accounts up to $250,000. "Did you know that no depositor has ever lost a single penny in FDIC-insured funds?" goes a script written by Maritz, a customer-relations firm that works with several big banks. As for folks with heftier balances, the banks have been calling in the heavy artillery. BofA's Global Wealth & Investment Management division, for example, hosted 2,500 monied clients on a conference call with in-house economists and strategists who provided an assessment of market volatility and an educated guess on where the economy is headed.

Every day seems to bring more disturbing economic and financial news—grist for anxious Americans to feed on. So banks are boosting efforts to ensure employees are up on current events and know what to say about them. BofA, for example, has added to its intranet site "Media Buzz," a collection of news stories customers may have read, as well as "Bank Watch," which flashes news of key developments in the financial-services industry accompanied by suggested talking points. When PNC Financial Services (PNC) said it was buying National City (NCC) on Oct. 24, BofA sent around a script aimed at customers who also had business with National City. The gist: Their deposits would be safe with PNC—but wouldn't they prefer to move their money to BofA, a bank with which they were already familiar?

In the coming months banks increasingly will face a central quandary: how to start making money again without turning off recession-swamped customers. Maritz has concocted soothing repartee aimed at folks who call to gripe about, say, a suddenly higher loan rate. The script essentially aims to achieve two things: placate Joe or Jane Borrower—and then sell him or her a new product. Sample question: "Why did you drop my home-equity-loan credit limit from $50,000 to $25,000?" The answer in essence: This is to protect you. If you need to sell your home, you won't be stuck owing more than it is worth. Oh, and by the way: Can I interest you in our rewards card?

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