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I recently received a letter from my bank informing me that my home equity line of credit would be cut in half based on "a random audit." I went to check my account online and was surprised to see my available credit already reduced. What a strange way to treat a longtime customer, I thought. My home value is going up and I just paid off a $400-a-month term loan. My family's employment and residence haven't changed in 10 years, and I've never been in foreclosure or bankruptcy.

I got in touch with my local mortgage officer, who had been very happy to help me refinance my mortgage from a competing bank not long ago. Now she said she couldn't assist me. I would have to submit my most recent pay stubs and get in touch with the corporate call center to formally request an increase in my line of credit.

I tell this story not from the perspective of a cranky customer but from the viewpoint of a professional services marketer and communications consultant. In over 20 years of consulting, I've never seen a business model that drives customers away work to anyone's advantage. Yet banks continue to conduct analysis with six-month-old data, make changes that have a big effect on customers, and then send out form letters after the change, inviting customers to call with any questions.

Retaining this model blatantly ignores the realities of an increasingly diverse and skeptical customer base, not to mention the competitors that are always ready to swoop in on frustrated patrons. Credit unions and companies like Google and Amazon pose an increasingly viable threat to traditional banking services.

Banks that alienate or ignore customers in the short term will be haunted by the consequences of their actions in the future. Abiding by three principles can help banks retain customers and net new ones.

Take note of what other banks are doing wrong and the products, services and customer relationships they're missing. Visit their websites and locations as a customer would. Use search engine ranking tools to see what customers are searching for; the key search phrases will reveal customer needs. In countless interviews, I've heard that customers want their banks to help them be financially successful. Lenders can differentiate themselves by being advisors online and in person rather than fee-focused companies that make customers do the heavy lifting.

Remember that technology is not a substitute for service. While big banks are farther along than community banks in offering mobile and online conveniences, they have backed off of automation after customers ranted about call center chaos, lost deposits and identity theft. Bank choice still comes down to whether customers feel understood, valued and protected.

Give customers real answers. Show them how to invest well and how to save. Produce quality content on the bank website and via social media that explains how customers can put their money to work and gain an advantage. To stand out even more, create video content and host financial workshops.

I'm amazed that my bank experience could still happen in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The industry needs to rebuild its credibility with customers now and gain trust from increasingly important — yet skeptical — demographics including millennials, Hispanics and professional women like me.

This summer, I will go through the hassle of switching banks because my current lender's model is intolerable. Keep in mind that I've been a customer since 1997 — and I hate change. Now when I'm at the peak of my earning power in 10 years and I've paid off my mortgage, this bank won't be on my radar. Perhaps it won't even be in business.

Christine Nelson is a senior marketing and media specialist with Ingenuity Marketing Group in St. Paul, Minn., who has worked with professionals for two decades to improve and sustain their reputations. She also paid off her student loan debt to the penny. Contact her at or 651-690-3358.

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