A funny thing happened on the way to the completion of the new J.D. Power study on banks’ selling tactics—the numbers didn’t add up.

The disconnect involves consumers’ confusion about what they are actually buying from their financial institutions.

J.D. Power surveyed about 1,000 consumers to gauge their attitudes about banking sales practices after the Wells Fargo fake-accounts scandal. The Costa Mesa, Calif., research firm wanted to learn the level of confidence that consumers have in their financial institutions. Officials were puzzled that the number of respondents who believed their bank opened an account without their permission (14%) was much larger than the number who said their institution is unethical (4%).

J.D. Power had originally planned to issue the report in December, but its authors went back and re-interviewed consumers to explain the discrepancy, said Jim Miller, senior director of banking. J.D. Power recently completed the follow-up survey and released the report on Wednesday. The new evidence suggested that banks need to do a better job of explaining themselves.

“A lot of consumers leave their institution confused,” Miller said in an interview. “There is an opportunity for banks to be more clear about which accounts they are opening for their customers.”

Part of the problem is that banks like to sell package accounts, Miller said. Of course, a root cause of the Wells Fargo scandal was pressure on its associates to cross-sell multiple products. But even excluding such extreme cases, many banks apparently are unclear about what they are selling, he said.

“I don’t know that customers always realize, or even agree to, what they’re buying when they walked in to just open a checking account,” Miller said.

Despite many consumers’ confusion, the J.D. Power study found that the banking industry has rebuilt its trust with the public since the financial crisis and that the Wells Fargo matter does not seem to have undone that progress. About 79% of consumers believe their financial institutions act in their best interest, and about 82% trust them to do the right thing.

“There’s no doubt that the Wells Fargo situation has tarnished the industry, but we’re at record-high levels of satisfaction,” Miller said.

Still, hard sales pitches sit poorly with consumers, and plenty thought that is what their bank is giving them, the study found. About 19% of respondents said they suspect their sales representatives were under pressure to sell multiple products. About 8% of the respondents said they do not go into retail branches for that reason.

Nevertheless, J.D. Power does not recommend that banks stop cross-selling. Instead, it should just be refined. “Our findings show that appropriately applied sales efforts do yield positive results,” J.D. Power said in its report.

“If we just stopped selling, I think we would be doing a disservice for customers,” Miller said. “We need to make sure that every product is one that a customer needs and would benefit from having.”

As for the issue of banks opening accounts without their customers’ permission, it wasn’t always the banks’ fault, Miller said. After the second round of interviews, J.D. Power was able to clarify that sometimes those accounts were opened as a result of fraud committed by an outside party, not by the bank. And in a few instances, customers made mistakes in their applications.

Finally, issues that applied to the entire financial services industry may also have produced unauthorized account openings. Over the past couple of years banks have been replacing credit cards with new EMV cards, and that rollout “didn’t always go smoothly,” Miller said.

The J.D. Power report was based on an October survey and information from earlier J.D. Power reports, such as its 2016 U.S. Retail Banking Satisfaction Study.

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Andy Peters

Andy Peters

Andy Peters writes about regional banks, consumer finance and debt collections for American Banker.