The focus of bank managers and shareholders right now is on getting through the storm, but customers often suffer the consequences of cost-cutting decisions made by a management committee.

Retail customers see headlines about failures that can cause worry, regardless of the relevance to their own situation. They may see fewer people in their branch, or they may listen to hold music longer when they call with a problem. Maybe some of their fees have gone up for no particular reason.

Small-business customers worry about getting through this rough patch, and credit has either gotten more restrictive or dried up completely.

Regardless of what's happening with the bank, customer service representatives and tellers are dealing with the same problems, and the same people, that they were handling before. Only now they have nervous customers, and they probably have fewer people to help deal with them.

Research shows that bad customer service can have a dramatic impact on customer attrition. There isn't a perfect solution to the problem, but there are a few things that can be done to lessen the impact on the customer experience.

Listen to your staff. It's critical to know how the front line is feeling and what they are hearing from customers to address possible emerging issues head-on.

Reinforce messaging in multiple ways. The front line needs clear and accurate information to answer questions and present the bank's case to customers. Press releases and other announcements about new developments or strategies should go to every employee, along with a scripted response to likely questions.

Keep up the coaching. Managers must ensure their team is working effectively with customers to resolve issues or concerns. Consistent and visible coaching can make employees feel valued and help them understand their role in the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, no amount of employee coaching will make your worst customers profitable. That's why it's so important your best customers "feel the love," especially in difficult times.

It's expected that banks will lose more customers in troubled times — but prioritizing who and what is most valuable is key.

How do you keep the good customers?

  • Branches and call centers need to know their customers in order to help them. A lack of data ensures a generic customer experience.
  • Banks go back and forth about rate exceptions and discretion in fees all the time, but flexibility at the front line is critical, especially when banks are tightening their belts and angering customers. Without the power to provide an exception, managers appears powerless, both with customers and with their own team.
  • Aggressive outbound communications are vital to maintaining customer relationships. This means more than statement messages and banner ads dropped on the Web site. Personalized direct mail or e-mail is a powerful tool, but the message needs to be delivered quickly enough to be relevant to the customer.

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