As wealthy customers reevaluate their financial situations, PNC's wealth management advisers are increasing and improving their conversations with them in an effort to retain and expand relationships.

The unit of PNC Financial Services Group Inc., which focuses on people with more than $1 million of investable assets, is doing cash-flow analyses and examining clients' financial plans, said Steve Pappaterra, a senior vice president and managing director of wealth planning.

But the company is also looking for more substantive conversations to deepen relationships. "Certainly a lot of what we do centers around making sure clients are comfortable with their financial situation," Pappaterra said in an interview Tuesday. "But by having deeper conversations, we are able to specifically discern a client's aspirations beyond their financial goals."

It is said that advisers often get so caught up in what a portfolio is doing that they forget to look at the client. Pappaterra used himself as an example. In addition to his job at PNC, he is a professional musician in Philadelphia. When a financial adviser talks to him about his passions, he said, he is more apt to increase and develop a professional relationship with that adviser.

"As advisers, we need to try to ask better questions to create a sense of trust and intimacy," he said. "The better advisers aren't afraid to ask questions that are a bit more intimate. The best advisers aren't afraid to make their clients uncomfortable."

With this approach, PNC's wealth management division has been able to retain clients despite a tough economic environment, he said. Its assets under management remained steady at $104 billion in the past year.

Pappaterra said the wealth management division, which has 60 wealth planners, has used a team-based approach to help reassure clients that they remain on track. "During a difficult economic cycle, it becomes more important to create a bond and reinforce that bond," he said. "You can't just take out the portfolio and show how they are doing versus a benchmark. We want to move from just being investment advisers to be wealth advisers. We want to always be [in] a position where, when clients make a big decision, we are a part of that decision."

A Northstar Research Partners survey said that most high-net-worth investors have stuck with their financial advisers despite heavy portfolio losses that have left them "highly distrustful and disillusioned."

Pappaterra said it is crucial for advisers to improve and deepen relationships now, before markets improve and customers begin chasing returns.

"If, as an adviser, you can help get wealthy clients through a difficult time," he said, "when things improve, these folks will stay with you."

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