Several banking executives have said that their companies benefited from a "flight to quality" in the second quarter, that they plucked rivals' customers who were spooked by the mortgage crisis and wanted to be sure their money was safe.
That would suggest a decline in something that consultants say may be more important than ever in this credit environment — customer loyalty — but these consultants also note that the average retail bank customer is less concerned about the bank's liquidity than about how much it charges for services.
Robert Hedges, a managing partner at Mercatus LLC in Boston, said financial stability "barely registers" as a trust factor with consumers. But if banking companies increase fees in an attempt to increase profits, there will be an impact on customer loyalty, he said.
"It will show up six to 12 months later in lower customer satisfaction and more attrition."
Mercatus surveyed roughly 3,200 consumers from April 24 to May 6 to gauge the link between trust and average wallet share. Banks with the highest trust scores captured 52% of a customer's business, compared with 34% for those with the lowest scores. Mercatus estimated that with more customer confidence, a large bank with over a million retail customers could generate up to $100 million in additional revenue.
But boosting confidence is not that easy. It might involve more transparency or offering more products at no cost, which could lower near-term revenue or increase operating costs, neither of which is appealing right now.
Peter Davis, the president of Vesdia Corp., a consulting firm in Atlanta, said it is tough for banks to "gather and build loyalty" while maintaining capital stability. "You have to keep the foundation solid first" by holding on to capital, he said in an interview Thursday.
More broadly several banks have moved to bolster confidence both on the investor and the customer side. In recent weeks, several have been quick to issue statements shooting down rumors about capital weakness.
Thomas Dougherty, the chief executive of Stealing Share Inc., a branding company in Greensboro, N.C., said banks "absolutely need to address those types of things rapidly."
But banks tend to overemphasize trust, "one of the most generic values" the industry promotes, Mr. Dougherty said. "As we have those problems in the market, banks come face to face with the fact that they have no imagination."
In the current environment, he said, banks would be better off shifting the conversation away from themselves and showing they understand their customers. "Where does loyalty come from? "It's generally not because a bank performs better than others. People buy things to reinforce who they are."
Thomas Rusin, the president and CEO for the North America division of Affinion Group Inc., agreed that banks "sometimes look internally and expect that customers already know what they offer." For instance, more banks are offering free identity theft protection, but many do not do enough to inform customers of that strategic shift.
Mr. Hedges said banking companies have to make the "right investments" to increase confidence. "There are trade-offs in short-term and long-term economics," he said. "Given the earnings pressure, we will see which banks are willing to compete for the full trust of their customers and which ones lack the competitive positioning to do so."