Do You Trust Me? Rebuilding Consumer Trust In Financial Institutions

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Do you have children between the ages of 2 and 22? How about grandkids 2 to 22? OK, then, have you ever been a kid between 2 and 22?

If you answered YES to any of the questions above, you’ve probably seen a million Disney movies in the past 20 years. And if you’re a typical parent (or person), then not only have you seen a million Disney movies, but you’ve probably seen a few of those movies a million times (“Let’s watch it again, Daddy!”).

One of the Disney movies I’ve seen a million times is Aladdin. I bet you’ve seen it a few times, too.

You might remember a couple of scenes that occur relatively early in the movie. In one of them, Princess Jasmine sneaks out of the palace to check out the surroundings, something she’s not familiar with. She takes an apple off a fruit cart, and finds herself being chased by the proprietor.

Aladdin, seeing this damsel in distress, offers his assistance. He reaches out his hand and asks Princess Jasmine: “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand, and he leads her to safety.

A little later on, after Aladdin finds the genie lamp, he poses as a Prince to woo the Princess. On the veranda of the palace, she spies his magic carpet. He offers her a ride, and sticking his hand out, asks: “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand, and they go for a magical ride.

What was it that led Jasmine to trust Aladdin? In both cases, she had to make snap judgments without much data, prior experience, or facts to go on.


A similar scene is played out everyday in the world of financial services.

Financial institutions hold out their hands, and ask consumers: “Do you trust us?”

The answer is increasingly “not so much.”

What are consumers really saying when they respond to that question? Like Jasmine in the movie, consumers are making snap judgments based on a number of factors, many of which aren’t being considered consciously by consumers.

There’s been a lot of good work done on the topic of trust. David Maister’s The Trusted Advisor is a great example (for a very high level summary, see JP Nicol’s blog post on Why Should Your Clients Trust You?).

Without trying to appear dismissive, I’ve got to admit that I try to avoid formulas for trust (although, I must admit, have presented them in the past).

One problem with the formula approach is measurement. Please don’t tell me that you can arrive at a single score for how “intimate” or “credible” your firm is. You can ask consumers how intimate the firms they do business with are, or how credible the firms they do business with, but consumers’ definition of credible and intimate are likely to vary across people.

What I’ve come to conclude from the research I’ve done is that trust is too complex a construct to boil down to a simple formula. Trust is multi-dimensional, and comprised of, and influenced by, many attributes.


Starting with research done by a French consulting firm, which identified the attributes that contribute to consumers’ perception of trust in a business provider, Aite Group developed a list of financial services-specific attributes in order to measure consumers’ trust in financial institutions.

What we found was that, to demonstrate or earn trust, it’s important for financial firms to:

  1. Have friendly and helpful service reps
  2. Listen to problems and concerns
  3. Empower employees to fix issues
  4. Clearly explain their products and services
  5. Make rates and fees crystal clear
  6. Say when it’s a bad idea/time to buy
  7. Respond quickly to inquiries
  8. Rarely/never make mistakes
  9. Be easy to do business with

These are nine of the top 10 attributes that were most closely correlated with consumers’ perceptions of trust in their primary bank (or credit union).

What we discerned from analyzing this list was a higher order categorization: The first three attributes are “human-focused,” the next three attributes are “advice-related,” and the last three attributes are operational-oriented.


Here’s why this is so important.

You might be intuitively believe that trust is something important to a customer relationship. But do you really have any proof?

I don’t have proof, either. But I have a theory (driven by research).

After studying customer loyalty (in a financial services context) for some time, I became convinced that I wasn’t capturing the true essence of loyalty by asking survey questions. The answers seemed pat and contrived. I was fortunate enough to work with some large financial services firms willing to identify and interview their most loyal customers (and disloyal ones, for that matter).

What we heard in the interviews were stories. When asked why they were loyal to their bank, customers, more often than not, related stories instead of attributes. Those stories had some common themes:

  1. “They have the most helpful employees.”
  2. “They help me make the right choice.”
  3. “They’re really easy to do business with.”

Notice anything about these themes?

They correspond, one for one, with the three dimensions of trust: Human-focused, Advice-related, and Operational-oriented.

Trust really does drive loyalty. Well, emotional loyalty, at least. It’s certainly possible to “buy” your customers’ loyalty through rewards, incentives, discounts, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I’d like to believe that emotional loyalty is a stronger bond than economic loyalty.


There is one more consideration to take into account, however: Not everybody places the same relative importance on each of the trust attributes listed above.

Older consumers tend to place more importance on human-focused factors. Lower-than-average consumers consider advice-related attributes to be more important. And relatively affluent consumers consider operational-oriented attributes to the biggest influencers of trust (see the HBR article To Build Trust, Competence is Key).


The financial services industry is rightfully concerned with rebuilding consumer trust. But doing so won’t come from advertising, it won’t come from just having more friendly people, and (sorry, folks) social media is no panacea. 

The nine attributes of trust listed above provide a roadmap for rebuilding trust. Financial institutions should:

  1. Assess (objectively) how well they do on those nine attributes.
  2. Determine which customer segments they have a trust problem with, and which segments they do well with. 
  3. Make investments in business processes and technology to fix the weak spots.

The bad news is that rebuilding trust is going to take time, and hard work — it’s going to come from getting better at what you do. Sorry that there’s no silver bullet. 

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