A Marketing Tip For Charles Schwab: “Talk To Blake”

January 11, 2010

There is no retailer I admire or trust more than Nordstrom. My fervent loyalty stems from a favorable experience years ago when a menswear department manager voluntarily refunded the cost of a suit after I complained about premature wear. I had bought the suit a year earlier, didn’t have a receipt, and there was no record of my purchase in the computer. I was so impressed with the store’s sense of accountability, I felt compelled to buy two suits. I have pretty much shopped at Nordstrom exclusively ever since, and now carry the retailer’s loyalty program Visa card. Without question, the goodwill and repeat business generated by that refund far outweigh the latter’s actual dollar cost.

On the service and value front, Charles Schwab is quietly becoming the financial services industry’s closest equivalent to Nordstrom. But they’re not entirely there yet, and founder Charles Schwab would be wise to take a closer look at the customer service playbook of Blake Nordstrom, the CEO who runs the retailer that bears his surname. (While Schwab is no longer CEO, he remains chairman and apparently is active enough in the business to command more than $3 million in annual compensation).

Although I maintain some of my assets with Schwab, I readily admit that I am highly distrustful of the company. Allow me to explain the paradox.

My relationship with Schwab is currently limited to plain vanilla bank products where I’m certain I have virtually no risk (or at least the faith and backing of the U.S. government). I would never buy an investment product from the firm because, unlike what I’ve learned to expect from Nordstrom, I do not trust Charles Schwab to stand with integrity behind the products they push.

In the past few years, Schwab has unloaded some highly dubious products on its customers, including quasi money market funds called Schwab YieldPlus and long-term bonds known as auction rate securities. Schwab faces class actions suits relating to the sale of its money market funds and has been charged with Martin Act Fraud by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for peddling the auction rate securities. (Important Disclosure: S&A represents an attorney who has a case against Schwab relating to Schwab YieldPlus. That said, the comments in this blog post represent my thoughts and observations and are mine alone).

My outrage and lack of confidence in Schwab is not simply that it sold the money market funds and auction rate securities, but rather its failure to do right by clients who allegedly were misled. While most of Schwab’s competitors have settled with regulators and reimbursed their clients for losses relating to auction rate securities, pass-the-buck Chuck is following the old-school Wall Street strategy of saying the clients were entirely to blame: “Roughly 90% of the clients who invested in (auction rate) securities came to Schwab asking us to locate and make available these investments for them,” Chares Schwab wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last August, emphasizing his firm “never guaranteed individual success.”

While that may be true, customer service is not simply about written guarantees, Chuck. It’s also about ensuring your customers view you as trustworthy and reliable.

People shop at Nordstrom because they can do so with confidence. If something goes wrong with a purchased product, there’s little if any doubt that the store will do the right thing when you bring the defect to their attention.

In truth, when it comes down to the fundamental principles of effective brand management and customer service, it really doesn’t matter what you are selling. As Donald Porter of British Airways once aptly put it, “Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”

So why didn’t Charles Schwab do the right thing with respect to making customers who essentially were sold defective products whole again? Perhaps the lawyers deemed doing so too great a legal risk.

While that stance may have a significant upside in the courtroom, it will not be without a significant downside cost elsewhere. By not stepping up as other firms have done (voluntarily or otherwise) to make allegedly misinformed product purchasers whole again, Charles Schwab will squander immeasurable current and potential client goodwill and badly undermine the impressive work of those responsible for creating Schwab’s Nordstrom-like experience.

In truly world-class organizations, the legal and marketing functions do not operate as separate silos, in good times or crisis, and a measured balance is routinely struck between their sometimes conflicting interests – and for good reason. After all, the only ones to ultimately benefit from letting Legal call all the shots are, well, the attorneys themselves.

Customers have talked, Chuck. Perhaps it is time you started listening.