At your service Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Does your financial institution deliver the customer service you expect? Does the loan officer know your name? And what about the teller you see twice a week?

Better yet, does your bank provide convenience services so you don’t need to take valuable time away from your business to battle traffic and wait in line to make simple deposits?

“Service is soup to nuts, from how you are treated to the ancillary services the bank offers,” says Darlene Nowak-Baker, executive vice president and lending manager with First Place Bank.

Test your bank’s accessibility with this service litmus test: Look up your bank and check out the phone number. Is the listing a direct line to your local bank, or an 800 number that most likely links to a customer call center and not the location down the street from you?

“Many banks today have a centralized number you call, and it’s difficult to talk to the person you deal with on a day-to-day basis unless you happen to have his or her business card,” Nowak-Baker says.

Smart Business spoke with Nowak-Baker about the characteristics that service-oriented banks share — qualities that you’ll want to make sure your bank has.

What are the bare-bones basics of service that business owners should check before working with a bank? ?

You can break down service into two areas. First is the people part. Whether business owners manage small, medium or large companies, they want to walk into a bank and have people know them. They want loan officers and other key personnel to know their accounts and to be knowledgeable about their businesses. Second are ancillary services, such as convenient banking hours, Internet banking and even courier service.

But above all, the staple in service is how the individuals in your branch treat you. Personnel should return phone calls promptly, be knowledgeable about products, and if they don’t know the answers, they should be helpful in directing you to the appropriate person to address your needs.

Now that so many of our financial transactions are electronic, what value does personal contact provide? ?

Growing businesses really need to have a partner who understands their business. You want to be able to build relationships with people in an organization so that they will identify your evolving financial needs as your business grows.

If the only point of contact for a business owner is the loan officer, often service in banking can get lost. You should have an opportunity to interact with a more senior person in the organization in addition to your loan officer and your local branch staff.

What other expectations should business owners set for the financial institutions they deal with? ?

Extended branch hours are key. I would not bank at a branch with limited hours of operation — the once-traditional banker’s hours of 9 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. don’t suit most managers’ schedules. The first question I would ask any bank is, ‘Do you offer extended banking hours?’ Even if you don’t take advantage of these hours all the time, there will be times when you do, and having the opportunity to swing by the bank at 6 p.m. or in the early morning before heading to the office is important.

What ancillary services should a business owner look for? ?

Check to see if your bank provides some kind of courier service. As a business owner, if you can have a courier service pick up your deposits for a nominal fee, you can save several weekly trips to the bank. Your time is better spent working in the business — not en route to the bank to make basic transactions.

Do the rules of service change for Internet banking? ?

From a tech support standpoint, most banks delegate a key contact person to address questions, concerns or troubleshooting issues. But keep in mind that service standards apply to all aspects of a bank. Whether you’re banking online, in person or over the phone, response time is critical.

Ultimately, you want to enter a banking relationship with a financial institution that sets high service expectations for its staff. That way, you know they will get to know you and your business, and they can make appropriate account recommendations.

As for your expectations, set those high, as well. You deserve to work with a financial institution that can tailor its products and services to meet your business needs.

Darlene Nowak-Baker is an executive vice president and lending manager with First Place Bank. Reach her at (248) 358-6403 or