Thurlow: Banks must build trust with unbanked

Getting unbanked individuals to open a bank account is only half the battle—the other half is earning their trust and offering banking services they truly need, American Bankers Association Chair-Elect Julieann Thurlow and other panelists said today during a discussion on serving Bank On customers at the Bank On National Conference. Panelists noted that unbanked individuals who open bank accounts generally do not have the same priorities as established account holders, so they are not going to be receptive to the same incentives to keep them engaged with their banks. A campaign offering cash for opening a new credit card account, for example, isn’t likely to matter much to individuals who hadn’t opened a bank account until recently.

People are unbanked for a reason, and it is usually because they are seeking financial control over their lives, said Thurlow, who is president and CEO of Reading Cooperative Bank in Massachusetts. Bank products are complex and a lot of the work with accounts happens behind the scenes, she said. And when her bank started having conversations with people about why they didn’t have accounts, many believed they had been harmed before by banks. “People are pretty smart…so give people, first of all, the respect that they’re not going to check cashers because they are for some reason illiterate financially, and they’re doing that so they can control their lives. Then build your products around their behaviors.”

In addition to offering Bank On accounts, Reading Coop allows people to cash checks for noncustomers and lets people come to the bank to pay their bills. The bank also works with community organizations to reach out to the unbanked. “Allow it to be a personal choice,” Thurlow said about services for those who have been unbanked until recently. “At the end of the day, it is building trust.”