Charles Schwab & Co. is the second-largest asset manager in the world. Its call center gets more than a quarter million calls a day.

Merrill Lynch & Co. is its top competitor, at least by traditional brokerage industry measures, as opposed to stock market valuation. Merrill is aiming at $2 trillion under management next year. Its number of millionaire clients has risen to six million, from one million, in six years. The average age of its clients is 71.

How can banks defend against such effective and successful competitors?

They have to focus on sales and get rid of their "excusitis" crutches.

A few years ago, I repeatedly heard these excuses from sales managers:

The weather was too bad and too cold, so there was no traffic.

The weather was too sunny and too pleasant, so there was no traffic.

At a time when everybody is talking about the importance of salesmanship for facing the competition head-on, too few of us are offering the necessary service levels and sales tenacity.

We have defined our field broadly as financial services, but we are not acting on that.

We do not do enough to help our clients' assets grow, protect them from market jitters, and facilitate the preservation of market assets through intergenerational transfers of wealth. Do we schedule visits with parents and their children when they are most likely to be together-during summers and the Christmas season?

Our customers' expectations have changed with their increasing sophistication and wealth. This calculation explains the paradigm: Returns plus Satisfaction should be greater than Pricing plus Customer Burden.

We are talking, first, about the immediate, intermediate, and long-term returns, versus the customer's goals. Satisfaction is a measure of our performance relative to customer expectations.

Pricing means the cost of doing business with us versus the perceived value, which goes well beyond fees and gets into convenience, service levels, and accessibility of client representatives. Customer burden means the difficulty of doing business with us.

Until our teams realize that it is the customer who sets the terms and defines value, we will not win the huge asset management opportunity that lies in front of us. Until we match and exceed the service levels of a Charles Schwab or Merrill Lynch, we will not realize that potential.

The No. 1 priority is to act-to change, clarify, inspect, and reinforce expectations in the organization - about behaviors, actions, and results. Don't just contemplate the competitive threat and the underlying opportunity-do something about it. Set clear expectations about sales goals and definitions of service.

There are many things to be done to compete effectively, but the key is to start with what is under your control today. It is we, not the customers, who are in charge of building the relationships.

The onus is on us to help our customers realize their financial dreams. If we don't care enough about it, why should our customers stay with us?

They would have every reason to find someone else who does. Ms. Bird, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo Bank, is based in Sacramento, Calif.

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