Everyman is a 42-year old marketing middle manager in a suburb of Cincinnati. In the morning, he gets into his Prius, dodges minor traffic, sits through a few meetings. Most days he buys a sandwich for lunch. Fighting off a nap, he flirts with a co-worker, emails his wife, goes home, has dinner, interacts with his kids, and falls asleep on the couch. Once a week maybe he gets some cash.
Point is, short of using a debit card at Subway or to fill up the tank, he isn't engaging the banking system at all on a daily basis. And that's just the way he wants it.
For him, for the vast majority of Americans, the role of the bank is to be there when the customer wants it to be there. Like the water company. Like the electric company. Engaging with one's bank — sticking a card in an ATM, basically — should be as simple, mindless and consistently efficient as turning on the tap or an overhead light.
What does this mean for banks? That they, in turn, are expected to act like utilities, providing a basic 21st-century human right (access to cash) just as the water company provides water and the electric company electricity. And that's about it, no matter how many cross-selling products they come up with, no matter how modern their mobile banking services (which, by the way, the vast majority of Americans could not care less about).
It also means banks should realize what they are not: vibrant companies on the cusp of innovation with galloping stock prices creating emotional consumer attachments. Dudes, you are not Apple. For Americans, banks should simply do no harm. Innovation isn't a core expectation. Neither are fees that nickel and dime on a product-line-by-product-line basis, and whose structure bears no resemblance to that of the bank across the street.
Ultimately, this is the message contained in the birth of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the crackdown on overdraft fees, the slew of lawsuits around mortgages, the Durbin Amendment, and the Illinois senator's recent comments damning banks for charging for debit cards. If it wasn't un-American to nationalize utilities, the banks would've been nationalized by now. Since that's not going to happen, we're seeing the government assert its authority over the banks in piecemeal fashion, regulation by regulation, sound bite by sound bite.
Is all hope lost? Probably not. Americans have short memories, after all, and everyone gets a second chance. If banks want to reduce their reputational risk, the hostility that surrounds them, and the rules and regulations that limit them, the very first thing they need to understand is what's expected of them, and what is not. At that point, maybe they can work the political and financial systems around the margins to improve their prospects over and above those of sheer commodity providers. But that's where it starts.
Repeat after me: Water. Electricity. Cash.
Andy Sobel is the managing editor of American Banker.