Banks are bombarding small-business owners with confusing marketing material that doesn't speak to their needs, said Anne Slattery, senior vice president for Fleet Financial Group.
"We don't listen well enough," she said. "We talk about our products and our customers talk about their problems."
Ms. Slattery made her comments last week at the American Banker RMA Small Business Banking Conference in Atlanta, where she showed videotapes of bank advertisements.
Ms. Slattery cited a First Union advertisement for its sweep account, which features two freight trains and explained that the account combines savings and investment options. But the ad did not explain that small businesses could use the account.
Another ad, which targeted Fleet after it merged with Shawmut National Corp., featured two identical fat men in gray suits shuffling papers.
"We are all out there saying the same things and too often we focus on ourselves and the customer gets lost," Ms. Slattery said. "We end up attacking each other."
The murky marketing is contributing to a serious slide in market share by banks, she said.
"Across the country, banks are reporting an alarming rate of small- business attrition," she said. "Our decline is someone else's gain."
Ineffective advertising also could explain a key finding in the American Banker's small-business survey: Many small businesses don't know that banks offer leasing, insurance, and investment products.
Other ads shown by Ms. Slattery focused narrowly on product attributes, like low interest rates on loans. What the ads should have addressed, she said, is the desire among business owners for banks to understand the businesses.
Fleet, for its part, tailors its marketing messages to five groups- mature, cash-rich companies; emerging businesses; high-growth companies; women-owned businesses; and professional groups such as law firms.
Todd Thompson, senior vice president and manager of marketing services for KeyCorp, said banks must use emotion to make their message stick in the business owners' minds.
"The emotion needs to be connected to the benefit of the product you are trying to push," Mr. Thompson said.
He praised an insurance advertisement aimed at baby boomers who need to provide simultaneously for their children's education and the support of their elderly parents.
"Who do you love the least?" the commercial asks, implying that the baby boomers will have to choose unless they buy insurance.
F. Bruce Sim, vice president and southeastern regional manager for Finova Capital Corp., stressed that good marketing involves more than strong advertisements.
Finova's lenders convey consistent messages because the company only makes loans, rather than offering cash management or investment products, Mr. Sim said.
Mr. Sim said Finova's lenders target defined markets, such as temporary employment companies or funeral home directors, to combat customers' views that finance companies are inferior to banks.
"When you are running up against this perception that you are second- best to banks, you have to have a farsighted marketing strategy," he said.
Finova's lenders routinely attend trade shows, develop wide referral networks, and send thank-you notes and gifts to prospects and customers.
Mr. Sims said few competitors send thank-you letters.
"It doesn't have an immediate payoff, but it can get us in the door," he said. "Then, by sending a simple note, we can jump ahead of 90% of the competition."