Anthony Hilton: Banks should not take all the blame

Cohn & Wolfe ran a panel discussion last week to explore what had gone wrong and what could be done to restore trust in banking. The first thing that struck me as a panellist was that the organiser of the event was a widely based consultancy rather than a financial PR specialist. The implication was that the collapse of trust has become a mainstream consumer issue.

This is true, but is it really new? The more the banks were taken apart, the more one had a sense of deja vu. When I returned to the UK after working in New York I vowed never to criticise UK banks again, because however awful they were here, American banks were much worse.

At times the discussion blurred the distinction between trust in banking and financial services, which is understandable given the media apply the term banker to everyone who works in the City.

The more contentious argument is that mainstream financial services have done more to lose the trust of the public than banks have, but they have done so by stealth. They have let their customers down by years of overcharging for products that have delivered an indifferent performance. They have delivered death by 1,000 cuts rather than by one spectacular blow-up.

This leads one to the bigger question of whether trust does actually matter in financial services. Trust is after all built up over time by repeated satisfactory experiences, and that is impossible to replicate in financial services where purchases are infrequent. It can take decades to learn whether it was the right product. The Cohn & Wolfe website says: 'Restoring faith among key audiences keeps a company alive to play again. Losing means the season is over.' In mainstream business that certainly rings true, but in finance letting the customer down is an art form, yet the industry has jogged along very nicely for the past 30 years, having worn the public down to a resigned acceptance that the poor service and products are the best available. Perhaps that is now about to change, but I would not bet on it.

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