Most consumers hold a low opinion of bankers and don't think they're involved in their communities, according to a recent Gallup study.

After interviewing more than 1,000 heads of households, pollsters concluded that only 31% retail banking customers believe banks care about their communities. And only 44% believe banking is an honorable profession.

The poll was commissioned by the American Bankers Association. The results should be food for thought this week at the ABA convention in San Francisco.

John A. Forlines Jr., chairman of Bank of Granite Corp. in Granite Falls, N.C., said the findings were shocking.

"It's a terrible thing for bankers to have to bear if they're doing well in the area of civic affairs but are not getting any credit for it," he said.

Mr. Forlines said that the negative perceptions may have resulted from banks' failure to publicize their role and how much they participate in the community.

Older people seem to think banks do better in this area. Forty-four percent of those 55 or older have a high opinion of banks' role in the community, the pollsters concluded, versus 19% of those 20 to 34.

Nearly 90% of retail banking customers think banks should care about their communities, the poll found, but only about a third that many think banks fulfill this expectation.

"That's really surprising," said Chris Hargrove, a consultant with Professional Bank Services Inc. in Louisville, Ky. "In most small towns, anyway, the bank is one of the biggest supporters of the community."

Mr. Hargrove speculated that the automation of the banking industry might lie behind the study's results.

Just over half of retail customers use automated teller machines regularly, the poll found. Seventy-two percent of those 20 to 34 do so, but only 29% of those 55 or older.

Most of those interviewed named convenience as the No. 1 reason for selecting a bank. Next were personal service and long-standing relationships.

The survey also revealed that many consumers are ill-informed about how a bank operates.

For example, 36% apparently believe that mutual funds purchased at banks are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The poll showed that if these people were aware that this is not the case, they probably wouldn't buy mutual funds.

"It means that banks have to hit people over the head with a two-by-four to make sure they understand these things are not insured," said Benjamin Bishop, an analyst at Allen C. Ewing & Co. in Jacksonville, Fla. "Banks should have customers sign a statement on this, or else they could get sued."

On the whole, however, 65% of banks' retail customers seem to be "very satisfied" with their bank, the poll indicated. But the level of satisfaction seems to vary markedly by region. The figure was 70% in the South-Central states but just 52% in the Northeast.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.