No bank in our survey has done a better job of positioning itself on long-term trust issues than BMO Harris Bank, which outscored the field when we asked consumers whether they would give their bank the benefit of the doubt when the next crisis hit.
Christopher McComish, executive vice president for retail banking at BMO Harris Bank, was pleased to hear this but he wasn't exactly surprised. Reassuring customers about the safety and soundness of their institution was a key priority at BMO Harris during the worst of the recent credit crisisa strategy inspired by a document from the company archives showing how the original Harris Bank thought about client outreach during the Great Depression. Another recent round of outreach was organized after the Chicago-based bank, owned by Canada's BMO Financial Group, acquired Marshall & Illsley in 2011 and had to introduce itself to customers in M&I loyalist markets such as Milwaukee. Apparently, the message resonated.
Q:Where does your thinking on reputation begin?
What we find regardless of demographic or any sort of cut you would look at, is that for the most part consumers find money and banking and finances confusing. So this approach that we take is all about what we can do to make things less confusing. It's about providing clarity to our customers.
Q:How do you apply that approach in a crisis?
So if you think back to 2009, when things were really difficult, we produced a lot of information that talked about the safety and soundness and stability of the organization that they were doing business with. And there was a lot of education of our front-line employees ... so that they would be able to talk about financial strength in a way that everybody could understand.
But we know whether it's difficult times or good times, consumers are still having to make decisions every day-so we focus on what we can do to provide them with guidance in their decision-making. And that's a little different from advice. It's, what side of the table are we sitting on when we're having this discussion, is it across the table or is it next to the person? We're also very focused on building know-how, building knowledge, so [as the consumer] there is less guidance I need in the future than I needed in the past.
Q:How did the material from the Harris Bank archives inform the playbook for handling the last crisis?
It was very impactful, and to me individually it was impactful, because this was a document that was created right in the middle of the Depression. The message at the time ... [was that] the founders of the company had a belief around honesty and fair-dealing. And it sounds a lot like providing clarity and transparency.
The document was almost an if-then sort of flow chart. There were descriptions of four [representative] individuals and what they were facing in their individual circumstances, and what we as their bank could do to help them. It played so well into what everyone was going through in 2008 and 2009 and still to some extent today. So we used that a lot as we talked to our internal employee base, to say that a lot of things have changed but some things haven't changed, including the role of the bank and the banker.
Q:Was the crisis a time to get more aggressive with advertising?
I remember we had a lot of debate around whether we [should] become more forceful from an advertising standpoint about the strength of the bank, but we didn't believe that would play well for the industry as a whole. The country was going through an issue and we needed to be part of a solution. [Our main communication] was really more of a handout with information for customers who were specifically asking questions. We would use it in our employee meetings and our branch huddles in the mornings. It was almost like a pamphlet that said here's all the information you need to know about our institution and why your concerns should not necessarily be your concerns.
All of our advertising, if you saw it at that time, was really around helpfulness. We really never talked about our product or a specific rate. It was about how we're the bank that's here to help you. Now, our "Here to Help" slogan has evolved into "Helping Make Money Make Sense."
Q:With the crisis and the M&I integration largely behind you, are you still trying to maintain this effort at employee and customer education?
It's a constant reengagement around here's who we are, this is what we stand for. The other thing we have to do is show a tangible commitment to the communities we're a part of. The Harris name has been in Chicago for 140 years. It's not hard for someone to equate us with stability here in this market. But what we have shown is a commitment to some of the newer communities we're a part of ... [by] being involved in philanthropic ways and doing things like financial literacy training and education.
Q:So your customers seem to think well of you, but what about the weak reputation scores that banks across the board are receiving from noncustomers? Does this worry you?
As a banker, I am concerned about that. I know that this industry is built on one thing and that's trust. And I know other leaders in this business spend a lot of time talking about what can we do, what are we doing, to continue to rebuild trust and to build loyalty in the general population.