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Trust in the banking system: How should banks respond to Occupy Wall Street?

October 20th, 2011 |

occupy-sign2.jpg“The corporations get what they want and the people don’t get anything,’’ says Elizabeth Johnson, with two pieces of duct tape stuck to her shirt with the words “Occupy Nashville” written on them.

She is taking part in Nashville’s version of Occupy Wall Street, where a loose group of protestors hang out on War Memorial Plaza playing the guitar, holding signs, and conducting organizational meetings to plan their marches and policies: keep the plaza clean, be respectful, don’t destroy property.

Johnson says she was originally in favor of the $700 billion rescue of the financial system until she realized the banks “kept that money for themselves.”

Other protestors include a call center worker who says she is disappointed her $100,000 in student loans for a master’s degree in communications landed her in call center doing customer service; a financial planner who says he is concerned about the future of Social Security, low wages and the loss of American jobs to developing countries; and a machinist who disagrees with the Federal Reserve’s control over monetary policy.

Occupy Wall Street’s protests in cities across the world over the weekend unveiled a groundswell of frustration against corporations, political systems, the global economy and the banking system, all rolled into one. Should the banking industry care? If so, what should be done about it?

After all, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that angry consumers are voting with their feet. The biggest banks in the country control most of the deposits. Account balances in checking and savings accounts are growing, not declining.

Bank of America just reported Tuesday deposits at the bank grew by $3 billion in the third quarter to $1.04 trillion. JP Morgan Chase & Co. reported deposits grew by $44 billion in the quarter to $1.09 trillion.

Still, many people think a bad image for banking isn’t good for business.

In June, GfK Custom Research North America, a division of market research company GfK Group, reported an online survey of 1,000 Americans where the financial services industry ranked third lowest for trustworthiness, ranking above only state and federal governments.

Only 35 percent found financial companies trustworthy. (Retail companies and packaged food manufacturers got the highest marks—71 percent and 65 percent, respectively—out of the 12 public and private sectors in the survey.)

“The fact is that the vast majority of financial services companies still generate substantial profits by fooling customers, or by capitalizing on their mistakes, or by taking advantage of them when they simply aren’t paying attention,’’ says a new report from the management consulting firm Peppers & Rogers Group. The group recommends increased transparency and practices that keep the customers’ best interests in mind, as a way to survive a future where customers can increasingly publicize their frustrations and bad experiences on everything from Facebook to Twitter.

In fact, making consumers happier could do something to push back the tidal wave of increased regulation of the banking industry, some think. Where did the Credit Card Act of 2009 come from, if not consumer frustration?

Plus, the volatile stock market, crashing home values, low wages and high unemployment set the stage for people to be angry at banks, says Gregg Poryzees, vice president, Consulting - GfK Financial Services.

“When the economy takes a hit, people are now unhappier with the financial firms they deal with,” Poryzees says. “This really is an opportunity to rise to the occasion. This is a great time to say ‘What can we do in terms of communication with our customers and designing innovative products, with brand positioning, managing the brand in a volatile market and a volatile consumer market?’”

Another GfK survey in July found that 88 percent of respondents strongly agree or moderately agree that consumers need an agency such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to oversee the practices of banks and other financial institutions.

Waiting for new regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is not a plan, Poryzees says. Getting ahead of regulation with consumer-friendly changes is a solution.

 “The implications are that the banking industry can turn this frustration into an opportunity, not so much different fees, but innovations that are more customer focused,’’ he says.

One can only wonder if the recent decisions of some large banks, including Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase to offset new restrictions on debit card interchange fees by charging customers a monthly fee, has further tarnished the industry’s image.

William Mills III, the CEO of Atlanta-based financial public relations firm the William Mills Agency, says bankers should think about how they will respond to the concerns of Occupy Wall Street and others. Community bankers in particular may have an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the bigger banks because they didn’t participate in the marketing and sale of risky bonds, equities and subprime mortgages.

“I hope bankers are thinking about how they would respond if a member of the media calls or a customer asks about it,’’ he says.

Scott Talbott, the senior vice president of government affairs at The Financial Services Roundtable, which represents 100 of the largest financial institutions in the country, says the industry understands the anger reflected in the Occupy Wall Street protests. The financial industry is carrying more capital, is safer, and has eliminated a lot of risky practices, such as subprime lending.

“We are working hard to restore the economy and trust in the banking system,’’ he says.

But the problem lies deeper than trust.

“What am I supposed to tell my children about what their goals should be?’’ says Felisha Cannon, the 33-year-old call center worker, saying she’s not sure there's a better future for them.  “I can’t tell them to buy a house, because it might not be worth anything. What should they be working for? Should they go to (college) and have $200,000 in debt?”

nsnyder

Naomi Snyder is the managing editor for Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/naomisnyder or get connected on LinkedIn.

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