Outsiders’ perceptions of how banks operate and their role in the economy can be quite different from the reality. This is especially evident in the ideas of consumer groups and some lawmakers’ aides have about how banks make money.

Maybe it is because deposits are insured, or maybe it is out of sheer ignorance, but there seems to be an assumption that banks are nonprofit organizations and should provide their services pro bono.

The most egregious recent example is what some banking critics say about service fees for noncustomer use of teller machines. Take this statement from last fall from Sam Jordan, an adviser to Rep. Maxine Waters of California:

“An ATM transaction is a paperless transaction. So what’s the cost? There is no need to charge that fee; they’re simply tapping out the consumer.”

Years ago, when I was teaching at New York University, First National City Bank (now Citibank) hired me to teach “Economics for the Thinking Citizen.”

The bank’s leadership established this course after a survey showed that a good number of its employees felt profits were about five times wages in the nation. Additionally, most had no understanding of the vast amount of capital that investors had to provide to support each of their jobs.

The 13-week course drew not only regular 9-to-5 employees but also night-shift people — strong men who wore lumber jackets to class and then went out to repossess cars — and part-time waiters from the bank’s dining room. We repeated the course about 12 times, because it was found again and again that it gave people a better attitude about their jobs and the bank’s goals.

Last November the gulf between perception and reality was on display at the Bank Administration Institute’s retail delivery conference.

For example, while 29% of the bankers felt that consumers would consider Web portals the best medium for financial advice and information, only 11% of the consumer group felt that way. On the other hand, about 50% of the bankers said ongoing financial advice was the service the public would be most apt to pay for, against only 20% of consumers.

In a positive finding for community banks, 22% of the consumers said they would seek financial supermarket services from the community banks or credit unions. Only 9% of the bankers said they thought consumers would avail themselves of such services.

These disparities make clear that bankers should take a long, hard look at themselves from their customers’ perspective. If they are to make their marketing effective, they first have to determine if they are aiming at a real target or at a figment of the imagination.

Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is a professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management in Newark, N.J.

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