After a flirtation with advertising and a dalliance with public relations, many bankers are turning to technology to cope with trust issues.
"As soon as the financial crisis hit last fall, what did [banks] do? They came out with all of these full-page ads about how 'We're safe and sound, trust us,' and they're missing the point," said Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC.
"Trust isn't generated and built through advertising. It isn't what you say; it's what you do."
At GMAC LLC, hit with a financial and auto industry double whammy, a banking service came online last week with a variety of features that give users a better understanding of how the company works. The hope is that transparency will increase trust, said Sanjay Gupta, GMAC's chief marketing officer.
"Almost universally, customers felt that they couldn't trust their bank," Gupta said. "The common perception was banks were looking out for themselves and not the customer."
John Schulte, the chief information officer and a senior vice president at Mercantile Bank of Michigan in Grand Rapids, said that giving customers more information and more control over their accounts will make them feel more confident in the bank. For that, Schulte is adopting technology.
In April the Mercantile Bank Corp. unit rolled out a remote deposit service that Schulte said offers retail customers a way to respond instantly to information they receive about the timing of pending payments.
"We're using technology to build trust," Schulte said. "It's giving them the information, and giving them the opportunity to act on that information and feel comfortable with it."
The remote deposit service complements Mercantile's funds-manager tool, a $3-a-month service that lets customers see ahead of time which items are about to post to their account. The service "gives them insight to what's clearing their account before it hits," Schulte said.
If the funds-manager tool reveals that a check is about to hit a customer's account and there are not enough funds to cover it, customers can transfer money over to cover it or use the remote deposit service to deposit a check electronically, he said.
Today, 558 of Mercantile's 2,361 retail online banking users use the funds manager, Schulte said, and the feature has become more popular as the economy has declined. Mercantile has also added mobile banking services from S1 Corp. to give its customers further visibility into their accounts.
S1, of Atlanta, has also studied the importance of trust. It is planning to release a report Tuesday showing that convenience was once the top attribute consumers considered when choosing a bank, but this year financial stability and trust have taken the top spot. Some of the 1,200 U.S. and European consumers who participated in the survey, conducted last month by Vantedge Group LLC, said they valued prompt notifications of issues and changes, as well as better communication of policies and procedures.
Gupta said GMAC hopes to address the trust issue through straightforward communication with customers.
GMAC, which is jointly owned by General Motors Corp. and investors led by the private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, has offered a limited set of banking products online since December, when it became a bank holding company. The troubled lender received a $5 billion bailout from the Treasury Department in December, and regulators said this week that it would receive another infusion, of $7.5 billion, under the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program.
Last week GMAC rebranded its online offering as Ally Bank, expanding its product line and revamping its approach to selling on the Web.
Though the Ally name is meant to convey trust, Gupta said it's the technology and features behind the brand that are designed to connect with customers.
"If you look at a typical banking practice, they try and bury the phone number because they actually don't want their customers to call," he said. By contrast, Ally puts its phone number on every page of its Web site, and a timer that shows the current wait time to speak to a representative. "If a customer is choosing to call, they have a problem," he said. "We shouldn't make it difficult to be able to talk to someone to resolve an issue."
That timer is fed directly by Ally's call center. If it indicates that the center is very busy and callers would have a long wait, "I think you as a customer would appreciate knowing that," and can proactively choose a better time to call, Gupta said. "Online banking should not mean that you should not be able to talk to someone."
Ally is also trying to make banking easier for the average consumer to understand with its "dejargonator" feature; holding the mouse icon overs specific financial terms such as "compound interest" and "maturity" calls up a window with a definition.
Another feature is the sleeping money alert, which notifies customers when funds have been left untouched in a savings account and could be earning more interest in another banking product such as a certificate of deposit. Gupta said these features are "things that customers would expect, but just don't find" at many banks, and can improve trust.
Shevlin said that although alerts can foster trust, they can backfire.
"I think where there is perhaps a gap in execution is in identifying the right things to alert the customer to," he said. Customers may not care about receiving a text message every time a deposit clears, but would probably be more interested in receiving an alert any time they risk an overdraft, he said.
According to an Aite report released last month, 18% of consumers said in a survey that they did not trust banks at all, and just 25% said they felt that financial companies had earned their trust.
Trust is "about being easy to do business with and not making mistakes," Shevlin said. "Trust comes from delivering on a day-to-day basis."