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Schwab’s Pep Talk: Using Community to Reassure Jittery Consumers

When it comes to economic crisis, grizzled veterans like Charles Schwab have stared into the abyss before and lived to tell the tale. We look at how several giants are approaching today’s meltdown with distinctive strategies for not only surviving but also thriving.

Charles Schwab TV Ad

When the running joke is that what’s left of your money is better off under your mattress, how, exactly, is Schwab wooing
customers? Talk to Chuck.

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People are gravitating to the comfort that apparently only founder and CEO Charles Schwab, who looks like the last guy who’d spend $15,000 on an umbrella stand, can provide. Becky Saeger, Schwab’s CMO, has used a souped-up version of the “Chuck” campaign–the same one that helped resuscitate the company in 2005–to win new, albeit nervous, customers. “We’re feeling like we’re on the front line with our customers and prospects,” says Becky Saeger, Charles Schwab Co.’s CMO. “But everything that we’re doing today comes from our experience of cheating death during the dot-com bust.”

“In 2004, 2005, we had to reassess what we were doing,” Saeger admits. “Focusing on the customer, our value proposition, what our brand means to people. We needed to be true to that while we brought a level of discipline to the business along with cost management.” That soul-searching led to the decision to bring Chuck, literally, back into the mix with customers. “He really is the ideal brand expression, and from that we can be both strong and consistent in our strategy.”

Talk to Chuck Ad

On Schwab’s site and in conversations with
representatives, reassurance is a hot commodity. “Beginning with the steady slide of the market last September, “communications have taken on a great role,” Saeger told me. “People want more analysis, opinion, and market information,” Saeger says. And they have lots of questions. “If you’d told me that people were going to want to know what holdings were in their money-market funds, or whether we were financially stable, I would have said you’re out of your mind.” Saeger has worked quickly to find the right tone. “This is a nightmare for people. We had to strike a balance between not bullshitting people, but also giving people some reason to be optimistic.”

The wild swings in the national mood have forced Saeger to perform customer service at lightning speed. “We’re now saying, in real time, ‘What do our customers need to know from us right now?'” she says. When anxiety is high, for example, Schwab markets products that speak to safety, such as high-yield checking. “We want our Web site to reflect our responsiveness to what our customers are going through,” Saeger says. “We are trying to be very current, giving them different kinds of products that emphasize safety and cash. We built a real-life retirement center for people who are close to retirement and are worried about how they’re adjusting their lives.”

Schwab TV ad

The effort has not been lost on customers and prospects, who are now talking back to Chuck, thanks to Saeger dipping her toe in the water of online communities and social media. “We have to be very careful about giving advice in an open forum, but it hasn’t deterred us,” she says. “We have a community of active traders and they’re all customers. You can’t see the communities as a prospect, but we’re watching very closely how our online community is evolving, how people interact with us, where the engagement is. In fact, in just one little piece of the community site, we’re seeing people spending twenty minutes at a time, which is higher than we anticipated in terms of engagement.”

Saeger hopes to learn more about how her customers share information around their financial lives with others, and tap that for a deeper dive into a larger pool of prospects. She says that being clear about who Schwab is in the marketplace is the first step. “You gotta trust your brand. You have to be so consistent about who you say you are as a brand, and then you trust the community.”

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To read about how Cisco, Corning, IBM, and Intel are weathering the current economic storm, read “Through the Fire” from our June issue.

Read more of Fast Company‘s Recession Remedy series.