There are plenty of consumers nervous about their financial health these days, who seek a voice of calm and solid advice; banks such as Wells Fargo and Citizens Bank see this need as an opportunity to build long-term relationships that extend beyond loans and deposits.

Wells Fargo is making licensed brokers available to customers in the branch to discuss risk, assets and other elements of investment strategy. The bank's goal is to reach customers who aren't high net worth, but still have a mix of products across a number of institutions: deposits, loans, retirement plans, mutual funds and education financing.

"We want to work on all sides of the balance sheet," says Lincoln Yersin, evp of Wells Fargo's wealth management group in San Francisco. "If we can do that just right, we can win more of their business, so we don't have just the checking account and the mortgage."

The bank has deployed more than 900 financial consultants, or full-service advisors, across its branch network. It's also staffed about 1,200 bankers with Series 7 licenses, as well as 400 private bankers' wealth planners who operate outside of Wells' high net worth private bank.

Tellers and customer service staff are trained to spot certain questions that a customer may ask, and to refer the customer to the proper consultant or licensed banker that?s on site. A profiling process follows, including an offer of the solutions the bank can provide.

Wells offers many of these same services online, but in a world of commoditized financial services the idea is that personalized in-store service will give the bank a leg up. "At the end of the day, the customers can get these services someplace else, whether it's competitors or non bank institutions," Yersin says.

Yersin didn't say if the strategy has boosted market share yet, but he argues that face-to-face interactions are becoming more important as consumers grow uneasy about their financial futures. "Turbulent financial markets play havoc on retirement plans, so having a trusted advisor that can help you stay the course is important," he says. "The biggest point is around retirement, or the income that's needed to fund retirement. Those conversations have picked up dramatically over the past 6 to 12 months."

Another institution, Citizens Bank, is offering a "Fit Checkup," a one-on-one consultation at branches with a banker to help consumers select products based on individual needs. "Customers can come in and talk to bankers, and they can ask questions about their financial picture and relationships they have with us elsewhere. They can then tailor a financial picture to fit their needs," says Theresa McLaughlin, chief marketing officer for Citizens Bank and Charter One Bank in Boston. McLaughlin says the bank has done more than 400,000 checkups at more than 500 branches since the program began six months ago.

Both McLaughlin and Yersin say their respective programs are not aimed at a specific demographic or age group; instead, they are designed to provide broader customer service and financial intelligence to existing customers concerned about how the shaky economy affects their financial health. But these programs seem sure to appeal largely to the mass affluent, those with multiple banking products and assets in the hundreds of thousands.

"The mass affluent are in a void between lower asset customers and high net worth," says Ron Shevlin, senior analyst for Aite Group in Boston. "They are relatively affluent, but the problem is their needs are more complicated than they are willing to admit."

Providing on-the-spot, branch-level consultations is an attempt to provide some middle ground for these customers whose assets, despite their value to the banking organizations, don't qualify them for full private banking services. "The business need is there, but the issue is the business model,"  Shevlin says. "You don't have to be super rich to have stock options or estate planning issues or college planning issues." (c) 2008 U.S. Banker and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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