Earlier this year, Bloomberg published a list of the 20 most-hated companies in America. Four of the five largest U.S. banks, plus the financial services firm American International Group (NYSE: AIG), made the list.
That's a major punch in the stomach for anyone in the industry, even if it isn't a shock.
It would be easy to blame the financial crisis, subprime mortgages, and the past seven years of economic malaise for banking's lowly reputation. But that would be too generous. A new survey points to an even more fundamental problem at the nation's banks: they aren't focusing on their own customers.
Technology a lone bright spot
Before we dig into what banks are doing wrong, let's acknowledge what is going right.
According to respondents of the Consumer Banking Experience Index survey by bank-software firm FIS, banks are doing a pretty good job of rolling out new technology to make banking easier. Banks scored high marks for connectivity, digital payments, and accessibility through multiple channels. In other words, consumers are pretty happy with banks' online and mobile product offerings.
Sadly, the positive feedback largely ends there.
Problems from top to bottom
Roughly one-third of respondents said their bank was meeting their expectations, and most of those respondents reported their primary financial provider as a small community bank or credit union.
That suggests two-thirds are falling short. Some are falling well short.
The large U.S. megabanks scored the worst, with an average score of 72. The index is based on a 100-point scale, with 100 indicating a customer is satisfied with the bank. The lower the score, the more dissatisfied the consumer.
Large and midsized regional banks did slightly better with a score of 79. Community banks and credit unions scored the best at 86 and 91, respectively.
The survey also sought to identify the factors that are most important to consumers, and then determine how satisfied consumers are in terms of each of those priorities.
Consumers ranked safety and security of their personal information as their highest priority, and then reported that banks are failing to meet their expectations in this category.
With news of data breaches, hackers, and identity theft becoming increasingly routine, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Consumers expect cloud-based services such as mobile banking, and they expect those interactions to be secure. The challenge for banks is not just catching up to today's expectations, but also staying ahead of a rapidly advancing technological landscape.
Banks also scored poorly on another top consumer priority: fairness and transparency. Credit unions and community banks differentiated themselves in this area, thanks largely to quality personal service, according to the survey results. The study said consumers "don't think financial institutions deliver a fair and open deal." That's tough feedback for an industry charged with stewardship of the nation's money.
The root of the problem
Two powerful problems drove this survey's negative results: horrible public relations and a genuine lack of execution.
All of the problems associated with the financial crisis persist in the public consciousness. It will take many more years for banks to recover from the failures that created the crisis.
Poor decision making and questionable practices since then have only made the problem worse. It seems like each week the government reaches a settlement with another group of banks -- typically measured in hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars -- over ethically questionable business practices. Bank of America somehow miscalculated its capital ratio, one of the most important line items it reports in its financial statements. JPMorgan Chase had the London Whale fiasco. The list goes on and on.
Layer on the fact that banks really do hide fees in the fine print, really do stack the deck to induce as many of those fees as possible, and really have acknowledged guilt in a variety of felonious activities before, during, and after the actual crisis.
For the banks themselves, the solution is a long-term commitment to fixing the underlying cultural problems that create an environment in which unfair and nontransparent dealings can exist.
If you go by the results of this survey, the solution for consumers is more likely moving your business to a community bank or credit union.
Jay Jenkins has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America. The Motley Fool owns shares of American International Group, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.