In Deborah McWhinney's view, much of the financial upheaval can be traced to a single trend: Bankers stopped getting to know their customers.

Combine a poor understanding of customers' finances with the sale of complex financial products, throw in easy credit, and Wall Street, you have a problem.

"What we've been doing for the last 20 years clearly hasn't worked," says McWhinney, who joined Citibank in April 2009. One solution, she says, is getting back to basics. "We're looking at how we can use more of a personal-banker approach."

This year McWhinney traveled to Asia, in part to observe how banks there nurture lifelong relationships with customers through what she calls "holistic" financial services.

Asian customers expect banks to help them set short- and long-term goals, and relationship managers to know them like family, she says. "They expect to be given better service and recognition when they do more business with a firm."

A similar approach in the U.S. could help restore consumers' confidence in the banking industry, says McWhinney.

Citi faces an uphill battle in trust, given it received $45 billion in government aid. (It has since repaid $20 billion in trust-preferred securities.)

"We absolutely know that taxpayer dollars helped us survive," McWhinney says. "I would doubt there is a person in Citibank who doesn't understand we have to earn back their trust."

Citi is already on the plus side of consumer advocates as one of the few banks not charging debit overdraft fees. But like the rest of the industry, Citi is contending with consumers who are disdainful of getting advice from the same banks they blame for putting profits ahead of people.

"I think it will be a decade before things get back to normal," McWhinney says.

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