Traditional Banks are Winning in the Trust Arena and Challenging Fintechs on Innovation

Given the amount of media interest in fintech, including new online banks and apps with names like Chime, Evolve, and GoBank, one might think that the major banks are struggling to survive against an onslaught of competition, but don’t count the major banks out just yet.

While the new companies are indeed solving for legacy problems and in so doing capturing the innovation conversation, banks such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase possess attributes that remain important to retail banking customers and maintaining their loyalty. Traditional banks are continuing to evolve their businesses to address changing needs and preferences, while focusing on why customers want to do business with a major bank rather than a startup that generally only fills a small piece of their overall banking needs. They also have the resources to invest in or acquire startups that allow them to stay competitive and relevant to new customer audiences.

The American Bankers Association conducted a survey in late 2018 that measured how happy Americans are with their bank. The data show that nine in 10 account holders are “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their primary bank.  And 42 percent of respondents indicated that they trust their banks to keep their information safe. Given all of the challenges that the major banks have faced over the past several years, the results of the survey were a bit surprising.

The levels of satisfaction and trust customers have for their bank is in striking contrast to how Americans feel about major retailers:

  • Just one percent indicated that they trust brands such as Walmart and Macy’s
  • Two percent trust telecom companies including Sprint, Verizon and AT&T
  • Seven percent trust non-bank payment providers such as Apple Pay, Venmo or Paypal
  • And only 15 percent trust healthcare providers

What further stands out in this survey is that the trust respondents had for their banks, was consistent across all age groups:

  • 41% (18-34)
  • 42% (35-44)
  • 42% (45-64)
  • 43% of those 65 years and older

The data seems to imply that in an age when trust for nearly any business, organization or branch of government is low, banks are at least achieving a reasonable level of success with their customers. With all of the billions of bytes of content floating around online about how different Boomers are from Gen X’ers, Millennials and Gen Z’ers, one would think that there would be a wide disparity between the groups yet with banks this appears not to be the case.

However, digging deeper into the results, the responses to “What they value most” provides some interesting data points that begin to lend themselves to real insights about what is driving customer decision making, and trust comes in below the other metrics:

  • 22% claim they value “Little to no fees”
  • 20% Security
  • 16% Location
  • 11% Customer service
  • 10% Reputation/Trust

It appears that when it comes to banking relationships, consumers place a higher value on the practical aspects of the relationship. For example, the tangible metric of “Little to no fees”, is twice as important as reputation/trust which is an intangible measure. This is in part reflective of the ease with which consumers can compare fees and rates.

It also indicates that a primary function of any bank is simply to keep people’s money (and information) safe. In some ways, this emphasis on the practical is similar to attributes customers looked for in a bank in the era before banking regulation and FDIC insurance protected customer deposits and banks needed to utilize physical architectural elements in the design of their branches to convey security and confidence. Holding coins and notes and processing bearer bond coupons for customers may no longer be the primary banking services, but customers still expect that their money is safe and that their online transactions are secure.

Corporate reputation/trust appears not to drive customer decision making at the same level as fees, security or location, and banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase have the ability to lower fees and offer rewards, and maintain expansive networks of branches and ATMs. Reputational challenges aside, reducing fees, offering convenience and providing security are critical factors to being able to continue to attract and maintain customers. And to that point it is worth noting that even the most sophisticated and comprehensive online bank or payment processing company, can’t offer you a safety deposit box for your jewelry or prized baseball card.

The formula appears to be working, despite the reputational issues of the past few years, during which they’ve had to fight to restore their reputation following various crises, the retail banking business has demonstrated resilience and is once again strong. Wells Fargo has had to manage through CEO change and fraudulent sales practices, while Bank of America took years to recover from the financial crisis and real estate collapse. While some negative halo to their reputation remains, the banks are growing and analysts are recommending their stock to investors.

This is a moment, however, in which the established banks need to accelerate along their own innovation trajectory to ensure they are building upon this strong foundation of security and trust, while also embracing the feature sets and user interfaces that the next generation of banking customers are seeking and using. In many ways the established banks are succeeding in this arena. Bank of America was ranked as Best Mobile Banking App for Security by SmartAsset and Wells Fargo received recognition as Best Mobile Banking App for Monitoring Investments, while Regional Bank PNC was recognized as Best Mobile App for Cardless Purchases. If the established banks can capture the attention of investors as true tech innovators, they’ll win more customers and be rewarded with higher multiples on their stock, and likely put their newer competitors out of business.

As today’s new banking customers mature they will need a broader array of services and a holistic relationship that allows them to grow while also retaining the innovative features of the fintech banks. They will also need to prove they are safe and secure in an increasingly risky cyber environment. While the fintechs are currently limited in the types of products they can offer, eventually they will be given the opportunity to compete across nearly the full spectrum of services. The next evolution of banking is well underway and the fintech banks are a regulation away from being able to offer customers more than a checking account and a debit card.

While no one knows which of these startups will be around 20 or 30 years from now, the resilience and durability of the established banks offers confidence and security that they will be. However, having a bank branch and a 100 year history should offer little comfort to bank execs. There is an Amazon just waiting to be born and it didn’t need a retail store front to sell its first book.