The idea that women think differently than men has been around for a while and has influenced how some banks reach out to female customers. But many still disregard the opportunity to tailor service to a particular sex.

Don't, the trendwatcher Faith Popcorn warns. With major demographic shifts underway, such dismissiveness over the next 10 years could prove damaging, according to Popcorn's BrainReserve, a New York marketing firm that predicts cultural and economic trends.

Single women between the ages of 22 and 30 are twice as likely as single men in that age group to buy homes, and in most U.S. cities they earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts.

Women are more likely than men to obtain advanced degrees, bolstering their long-term earning potential, and even in households where men are the primary breadwinners, women make the bulk of the financial decisions.

Women are also increasingly entrepreneurial: they own 35 percent of startups, and by the end of the decade there will be more businesses started by women than by men, Popcorn predicts.

These trends-which Popcorn's firm refers to collectively as a "she-change"-could have a powerful impact on financial services, potentially affecting the way banks go to market with mortgages, investment advice, small business loans and the like.

The right response for banks, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a wealth psychology expert and author of the new book "How to Give Financial Advice to Women," is not to start from scratch with their consumer product lineup, but rather to rethink the approach they take in selling to women.

"Banks need to be really careful to not assume that you can change your product to be pink and have that serve the needs of women," she says. Instead, she advises, learn to be a good coach, because women want to work with experts who collaborate with them as opposed to telling them what to do.

Some banks already are acting on this insight, particularly with women business owners.

Michigan banker James Dunlap is well aware of the importance of women in the economy, and he has made a concerted effort to court them since he took over as the Western Michigan regional president at Huntington Bancshares nearly a decade ago.

One of his first moves was to conduct research on what makes women tick-how they congregate, how they make decisions, how they run businesses-and what he found was that women are indeed more collaborative and relationship-oriented than men. "Unless you understand that, you can't align your efforts around how to best be an advocate for them," Dunlap says.

Next, he worked with local business leaders to develop a networking group that would bring together like-minded women to discuss issues unique to them and help raise their stature in the community.

Nine years later, the Huntington Women's Initiative has grown into a powerful advocacy group in the Grand Rapids area that celebrates women's accomplishments, pushes hard for more female representation on corporate and nonprofit boards and, perhaps most importantly, grooms the next generation of female leaders through mentoring and rigorous career development programs.

The network is governed by a 12-women board that meets monthly and sets the agenda for its programs. Huntington underwrites much of the Initiative's costs-it even pays the board members- and also sponsors the professional development programs and selects women for the mentorship programs. Dunlap would not disclose how much Huntington spends each year sponsoring the Initiative, though, he says, "It is not an insignificant amount."

 

Dunlap is reluctant to discuss the benefits to Huntington, preferring instead to note the program's success in preparing women for board seats and higher-profile executive posts. But when pressed, he acknowledges that women involved in the Initiative have shown their appreciation by doing their banking with Huntington. "Of course," he says. "You don't think it endears people to your organization because you are stepping up to do this?"

Ted Pulton, a principal at Popcorn's BrainReserve, is not surprised that Huntington is capturing more business from female executives and entrepreneurs; his research finds that women tend to gravitate to companies that introduce them to other women.

"Connect them to each other and that's what connects them to the brand," Pulton says.

Teri Cavanagh, the president and CEO of the Global Banking Alliance for Women, a New York-based trade group devoted to nurturing female entrepreneurs, agrees, though she does not think U.S. banks are doing a particularly good job of facilitating connections. "There are banks that are, but they just not doing it in the most robust way," she says. "They might be sponsoring a women's award ceremony or they might be reaching out to a local women's business organization, but they are not giving it enough gravitas and giving it a comprehensive enough look to make the impact happen."

One exception is Australia's Westpac. Over the last decade or so, the bank has built up a team of female bankers-studies also show that women prefer to get their financial advice from other women-to be single points of contact for female entrepreneurs. In addition to loans, the bankers provide business advice in such areas as marketing and staffing, either directly or through the bank's network of female entrepreneurs.

Most visibly, Westpac (which has a female CEO) runs an interactive website-www.therubyconnection.com.au-whose sole mission is to help women learn from each other and share ideas through articles, seminars, blogs and networking events. "It's not about products and services anymore," says the Global Banking Alliance's Cavanagh. "It's all about educating women."

 

Some major U.S. banks also have outreach efforts. Citigroup, which started Women & Co. more than 10 years ago as a way for female customers to learn about personal finance topics, this year launched a LinkedIn group called Connect: Professional Women's Network, Powered by Citi.

Some smaller banks also are catching on. North Jersey Community Bank in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and the Bank of Tampa in Florida both recently established women's networking groups as part of an overarching strategy to deepen relationships and build new ones.

"We want to help women to be more successful, and in doing so, the bank will be more successful," says Bank of Tampa's Leslie McCabe-Holm, the company's office manager and the chair of its Women Connected program.

North Jersey Community Bank Chairman and CEO Frank Sorrentino agrees that such programs are far more important to women than products or interest rates. "They want to know that someone's got their back," he says.

"We don't have a women's business checking account or a women's savings account, or a loan for women only. What we do here is more appealing to people who care about being in a relationship."

According to Kingsbury, 70 percent of women who lose their husbands fire their financial advisers within a year because the advisers fail to develop relationships with them. She says bankers who take time to build trust will be rewarded with referrals, noting, "Women refer 26 times to men's 11 times."

But "don't rush her," she cautions. "The worst thing you can do is try to close that sale quickly. She'll get there when she's ready, and if you give her that space, she'll come back and tell all her friends about you."

 

 

Alan Kline is the consumer finance editor for American Banker.

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