Superior services, differentiation key

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Michael Robinson, VP of Washington, D.C.-based marketing communications agency Levick Strategic Communications, has a multifaceted insight on financial services marketing. During his more than two decades of communications experience, he has served in posts including senior communications spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission to VP of one of the nation's largest investment banks, Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group. As senior managing partner at Hill & Knowlton, he spearheaded marketing efforts with such clients as American Management Systems, Ernst & Young, Hewlett-Packard Co., KPMG and Yahoo!

BtoB caught up with Robinson to ask him about what marketers can do to get their foot in the door with major financial services companies.

BtoB: What's the current state of the financial services industry and how does that affect would-be marketers/vendors?

Robinson: The financial services industry today is at a crossroads. As investors are empowered with more trading options than ever before-from online accounts to ECNs [electronic communications networks]-they also have access to a greater amount of independent research, thanks to the global settlement the wire houses made with the SEC, NASD, New York State Attorney General and other regulators. The upshot of this access to information and the ability to act on it is that the playing field has been leveled, making it possible for many upstarts to challenge even the most venerable brands.

For major brokerage houses to win and keep customers, they will have to differentiate themselves through superior customer services, deploy investment products that appeal to a wide range of customers and guard their reputations against scandal. Vendors should beware of the overall economic picture, given that any shrinkage in discretionary income could be felt directly by banks and other financial institutions.

BtoB: What are the unique opportunities and challenges of marketing to major financial service institutions?

Robinson: The sheer size and scope of the largest financial institutions means that pre-existing relationships for virtually every product and service already exist. Coupled with the fact that so much of financial services relies on relationships, for a new marketer to succeed it needs to craft a way in the door and, if at all possible, find a champion.

Too often vendors miss the point when they're dealing with banks and financial institutions. The billions of dollars that are involved belong to the investors, and the financial institution is just the custodian for the funds. In other words, to win business from banks and financial institutions, vendors need to adopt the same mind-set and think like a customer or client.

BtoB: What tactics should marketers use to reach and engage this target audience?

Robinson: The thrust of all communications and marketing efforts by vendors has to emphasize how their products best help and suit the end users, in this case the investors and customers. The whizbang excitement of technology, for example, is less important than third-party validation and ease of use. Follow-up in everything is key. And wherever possible, start small-say a regional office or a division at headquarters-and build internal credibility with fantastic results. Because they are so highly regulated, banks and financial institutions are very risk-averse and will be reluctant to make changes unless they can be assured that the positives outweigh the negatives.

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