WASHINGTON -- Janice Smith, the consumer watchdog for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., has always considered himself unique for having a "people" job in an industry that revolves around numbers.
No more. With Congress' recent focus on bank-consumer issues, bankers seem more attuned to customers' needs than ever before, said Ms. Smith, director of the FDIC's office of consumer affairs.
Shouting matches between the industry and consumer groups have died down, she said.
"When I go out and talk at banking conferences now, it's not a gripe session. It's more of a working relationship between bankers and communities," said Ms. Smith, who has been with the FDIC for 23 years and now supervises about 35 people.
One reason for the new attitude, she said, is the involvement of senior management in consumer-law compliance issues.
Ms. Smith said that bank CEOs who realize that consumer affairs is part of their business do better business. In fact, she said, once bankers have knowledge of compliance, they have a greater understanding of their own institutions.
Consumers are smarter now, too, and that has contributed to the current dialogue.
Ms. Smith said the FDIC has always recognized the value of keeping customers informed. That's why the agency emphasizes consumer education.
One of its newest projects employs computer technology to help consumers make their own decisions. The FDIC, in conjunction with the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Postal Service, launched an "outreach kiosk" pilot project last June.
The computer information centers are slated to be installed in the next few months in 16 shopping centers around the country, from Seattle to Baltimore.
The kiosks will offer consumers access to free information on consumer rights, the significance of a Community Reinvestment Act evaluation, and bank products such as insurance.
Ms. Smith also plans to offer a discrimination complaint form at the kiosks. Copies could be filled out and sent back to her office.
She also oversees the FDIC's 12-year-old consumer hot line. Seven people standby at the FDIC's "800" number to answer questions about deposit insurance and banks.
Most of the calls, said Ms. Smith, come from elderly people who are worried about losing their deposits.
Ms. Smith believes she is helping the industry through her role as educator.
"If people understand, there's less fear," she said.
The most difficult problem she deals with, she said, is discrimination, because it is not easily identified or resolved.
She said she is trying to do a more thorough job with on-site examinations, analysis, and serious investigation to combat this problem.
When she helps to train examiners -- an important part of her job, she said -- Ms. Smith emphasizes sensitivity and interpersonal skills. The trainees undergo multicultural training along with learning about regulations.
She also runs seminars for bankers to show them how to deal with examiners as well as with regulations.
A Delicate Relationship
The relationship between a banker and an examiner is rarely relaxed, Ms. Smith said. She has heard many banks complain about examiners whom no one can talk to.
"When I was an examiner I don't think it was quite so adversarial," she recalled.
But she has been pleased lately, she said, with examiners who strive to be personable as well as professional.
"When you talk to people," Ms. Smith said, "you learn a lot."