President Obama's January 4th recess appointment of Richard Cordray as head of the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has threatened to set-off a contentious legal challenge in an already polarized Congress.
Although Senate Republicans filibustered in July to block Cordray's nomination, the president's recess nomination fills-in the critical missing piece of the legislative puzzle first crafted by current Senate hopeful, Elizabeth Warren. Now that a director is in place, the bureau can more seriously exercise its power to level the playing field trodden by Wall Street and the American consumer.
With the economy still mired in the doldrums of the 2008 financial crisis, consumers still lay much of the blame for the country's malaise on financial institutions. The degree to which this is justified is debatable, but no one can argue that banks have a public image problem and that the problem is built on a lack of trust.
A good starting point for deciphering the debate over the CFPB is to understand what consumers think of the bureau's legislative agenda.
This past July, days after the CFPB was officially put into motion, my firm surveyed 1,005 consumers about their opinions of the CFPB. The telephone study differed from much of the existing research on the topic by also explaining the possible drawbacks of the CFPB's reform package before soliciting respondents' opinions.
The survey paints a picture of relative wide support for the bureau. In all, 43 percent of Americans agree strongly that consumers need an agency such as the CFPB to oversee the practices of banks and other financial institutions with 39 percent agreeing moderately. Further, about two thirds of Americans feel that planned financial reform would more likely help rather than hurt the economy and nearly the same proportion feel it would also benefit their own financial health.
In terms of priorities, consumers by a wide margin (47 percent) believe that reform of the mortgage industry should be the bureau's first order of business with credit card reform (35 percent) and checking overdraft reform (12 percent) named as priorities two and three.
This climate of distrust against banks is not without a solution. The first step is for banks to recognize that there is opportunity to lead offensively and own the areas important to consumers in order to bolster their own brands. Here are four prescriptive suggestions for what this path may look like:
Tie innovation to financial well-being: Technological advances are at the forefront of banking innovation, but products that add value by supporting financial well-being will work to repair and build trust. One example lies overseas with the U.K.'s Nationwide Bank. The bank credits the fierce loyalty of its customers to bringing customer-friendly products to market such as a credit card that does not charge users exchange rate commissions when travelling in Europe.
Be fair: Although fees are necessary for banks to raise revenue, the buck should stop at unfair fees, excessive fees and fine print that may disguise how fees are levied. Although previous policies are now water under the bridge, focus on and promote your advocacy of customer-centric policies.
Go beyond "customer service": Banks should explore a new era of customer service that goes beyond servicing customers to also making them more financially savvy. Given that the majority of U.S. adults don't even balance their checkbooks, there is a huge opportunity for banks to sponsor or provide training and education that helps raise the financial IQ of U.S. consumers.
Get in tune with your customers: As with any new product or marketing initiative, banks should first find out what customers think — benchmarking and then tracking perceptions to monitor progress as well as to inform future marketing efforts. As companies harness their creative energies they can also use research to evaluate new product concepts spurred by planned improvements.
Given stubborn levels of economic uncertainty, it is a safe bet that issues of trust and consumer protection will continue. Further, as the CFPB continues to collect data, including evaluating complaints received by its consumer response center, these issues will remain in the headlines.
As such, getting in front of upcoming legislation is key for building trust among customers. Banks that only do the minimum to address the public's grievances may as well just put a target on their backs for regulators — as well as for competitors who are anxious to eat their lunch. However, banks that act on their own accord to improve customer relationships may set a gold standard of banking services that both regulators and consumers will recognize as ideal.
Gregg Poryzees is a VP consultant of GfK’s North America custom research division.