The business advantages of communicating better with your banker Featured

8:01pm EDT April 30, 2011
The business advantages of communicating better with your banker

If financial issues are keeping you up at night, the solution could be as simple as sitting down with your banker.

“I want to sleep well at night, and I want you to sleep well at night,” says Sean Richardson, the NorthCoast president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank. “The only way to do that is by talking. It’s when people don’t talk to one another that they start to guess. When a client isn’t communicating with me, I assume the worst. Likewise, if the bank isn’t talking to its clients, those clients will often jump to the conclusion that things aren’t going well. The bank needs to communicate that it understands whatever problem the client is facing and is willing to help.”

Smart Business learned more from Richardson about the business benefits of improving your relationship with your banker.

What are the five keys to having a better relationship with your banker?

Clear and direct communication is key. In order to have a good relationship, businesses should realize how important it is to have a banker who communicates clearly. Make sure you and your banker speak the same language. Don’t guess what your banker is saying. Make sure your relationship is strong enough that you can ask for clarification, or talk things over to make sure you are on the same page.

Not all relationships are created equal. You need to seek out a banker you can count on. Often, bankers are seen as fair-weather lenders; they’re there when times are easy, but as soon as times get tough, they’re not available to help. If you have a good relationship with your banker and have established trust, that is valuable. Your banker should stand up for you, be proactive, help your business be successful and be your advocate within the bank.

A banker must be knowledgeable about your business. This is fundamentally critical to all relationships. Not only does your banker need to understand your business, he or she needs to understand your competition and how your operations work. This can be accomplished by inviting your banker to tour your facility or by scheduling regular meetings. The more a banker knows about your company, specifically, the better that banker can help you, whether it’s through getting additional capital or restructuring debt.

Meet senior management. If you are my client, I want you to meet as many of my team members as possible. I want you to meet my banking assistant, my portfolio banker, my credit officer and my regional CEO. If I introduce you to everybody, you become more comfortable with the business/bank relationship as a whole. Additionally, if I’m unavailable, there are other people in the organization you know and trust that can support you.

A banker should be a trusted adviser. Businesses should have a good advisory team, consisting of a lawyer, banker and accountant. Those three professionals should work together in concert with you to make strategic decisions and plans, as well as develop a company strategy that will get your business to the next level. Giving your banker that trusted adviser status helps build the relationship and drive business success. If you don’t include your banker as part of your advisory team, you’re missing a vital part of the equation.

How can you develop a better relationship with your banker?

It all comes down to open, honest dialogue. People tend to play their cards close to the vest. They don’t open up with another individual until they know that person. But a banker’s job is to say: ‘Here’s how I see your problem. Tell me how you see it differently and tell me how we can work together to find a solution that makes everyone happy.’

It takes work and effort to develop that comfort level and trust where a client feels comfortable calling and asking for advice.

What is the best way for a banker to gain knowledge about the business?

Consider inviting the banker for an operational tour of your company. Let the banker meet the management team. The banker should be able to sit down with that team and discuss financial and operational issues, such as why the company needs new computer hardware. That meeting and discussion really helps a banker comprehend what the owner is trying to accomplish. Sometimes, the owner is determined to head down a particular path, but once the banker understands the situation, he or she can provide additional solutions that the owner never considered.

What particular traits should businesses look for in a banker?

It’s important to look for a banker you feel comfortable with. Trust is such an important factor in building any good relationship. You also need someone that can communicate effectively. In order to be successful, both the client and the banker need to understand each other’s goals and strategies. You also need someone who’s going to listen to you. I think we all know people who already start formulating a solution before they hear the whole problem. Make sure you and your banker completely understand each other’s needs and ideas.

SEAN RICHARDSON is the NorthCoast president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank. Reach him at Sean.Richardson@firstmerit.com or (216) 802-6565.