Survey says, the bigger the bank, the less people trust them

It's no revelation that big banks have an image problem these days. And to add proof to what we'd already suspected, a new report from Forrester Research shows that America's biggest banks are the least trusted banks in the country.

Forrester Research ranked almost 50 financial services firms in the United States, asking approximately 4,500 people if they agree with the following statement: "My financial provider does what's best for me, not just its own bottom line."

With the percentage of respondents who agreed with that statement ranging between 33% and 16%, the bottom seven of this year's rankings were, in order, Bank of America, Chase, Capital One, TD/Commerce, Fifth Third, Citibank and, at the very, very bottom, HSBC.

But this isn't just due to the bailouts. As American Banking News points out, these banks have been at the bottom of the survey for the past seven years.

Just out of curiosity, I contacted a well-regarded corporate image consultant who specializes in branding to see if he had any suggestions for how the banks could regain their customers' trust.

I expected some optimism, but just as a measure of how deep a hole the big banks now find themselves in, Adam Hanft, CEO of the branding firm Hanft Projects, wasn't able to give me much.

Just to give you a little background, Hanft is the co-author of The Dictionary of the Future: The Words, Terms and Trends That Define the Way We'll Live, Work and Talk. He's the type of guy who not only blogs for the Huffington Post but has also appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So he's tapped into the whole pop culture arena.

Unfortunately, if you're a banker hoping for a scrap of good news from Hanft, there isn't much to find.

It's not that he thinks banks can't regain their customers' trust. He just hasn't seen them doing anything lately that's going to bring it back. "Part of the reason that banks aren't trusted," says Hanft, "is that their behavior has been so inconsistent. I think the banks have spent too much money on PR people trying to spin their behavior rather than working on making changes in their infrastructure.

"We're long past the point where just clever messaging can save the banks' reputations," Hanft adds, "They can say, 'We recognize that they're our problems, and we're going to have to improve, we're looking out for you,' but -- well, you know, all that crap frankly doesn't mean anything."

If the banks are going to regain anyone's trust, says Hanft, they have to start making real changes in how they do business, like being more transparent. Hanft says that Ally Bank, which used to be GMAC, is one of the few banks that appears to be doing a good job with that.

"Trust has to be earned through authentic and integrated responses that are simple and concrete," says Hanft, "and frankly, I haven't seen any real meaningful effort to win trust back."

But that may our fault, says Hanft. "The passivity of the customer has been pretty remarkable," he says. "There's been populist outrage but no pitchforks. If you look at what people have done, they haven't pulled their money out of Bank of America. I see people angry, but their behavior doesn't reflect that. They're sheep and haven't punished the banks in any way."

If we would start getting angry enough to take our money out of our accounts and switch to a smaller bank, says Hanft, maybe the banks would have a reason to start treating people differently. There is, in fact, a movement touting just that. Arianna Huffington's small money movement is slowly gaining traction.

"Even during the most heightened emotional outbursts, when people were mad over the bonuses being given to Wall Street, the people haven't reacted," Hanft says. "I wonder if with the Internet, we're given the ability to vent and rant, and that releases everyone's energy, and then people keep doing what they're doing anyway. It seems like a curious psychological phenomenon."

Have you done anything concrete to show your bank just how mad you are? If you've put your money where your mouth is, let me hear about it.

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop, often writing about banking issues. He is also the co-author of the new book Living Well with Bad Credit.

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