Distrust of large institutions makes this the year of the community bank

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Between the cross-sales scandal at Wells Fargo, a record-breaking data breach at Yahoo and a tumultuous election season complete with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it is no wonder that consumers’ trust in large organizations continues to decline.

For the banking industry, this level of distrust poses a huge challenge. In the eyes of the consumer, it would be easy to assume that nearly all institutions engage in some of the unsavory practices we saw at Wells and elsewhere. As bankers, we know this is untrue and hope that our customers do as well. But instead of assuming the role of the victim, community banks need to turn the challenge into an opportunity. We must use what happened at Wells Fargo as a teachable moment to affirm what differentiates us from big banks.

Community banks should now jump at the chance to show consumers and policymakers the good that banks can do.

Just as locally kept businesses differ from national conglomerates, community banks are inherently different from the big banks. We, local businesses, depend on relationships more than volume. We know our customers by name and we make banking and lending decisions down the street from where our customers live and work, not from across the country.

Even in today’s quick-fix world motivated by technology advancements, many bank customers still seek out old-fashioned customer service. Indeed, more than half of consumers prefer to interact with their bank in person, according to a report from TimeTrade. This is great news for community banks, where emphasis on customer service in the branch comes first, including promoting quality over quantity in product offerings. The local and personal investment of those who work in branches is just one, but perhaps the most significant, advantage that community banks have over the big banks.

The employees we bring onto our team live in the neighborhoods we serve. They go to the same grocery stores, restaurants and post offices as their customers. Big banks simply can’t compete with the value of doing business with your neighbor.

This year will still bring continued uncertainty. Community banks will continue to feel a spillover effect from the Wells Fargo scandal in terms of the level of trust consumers place in financial institutions. It is also still too early to tell what the regulatory environment will look like in the Trump administration.

But with that uncertainty, community banks still have a tremendous opportunity to urge consumers to explore other, more reliable, banking options beyond the large institutions.

My call to community banks across the nation is to capitalize on the opportunity to satisfy consumers’ curiosity by addressing the scandal and uncertainty in big banks and businesses directly. Instead of living in the shadows of the big banks, take this opportunity to enlighten current and prospective customers on how we are different.

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