Anthropologist Finds Bankers in Need of a Softer Image

Small businesses, like tribes-people everywhere, have their own customs and mores that bankers should respect, according to John Lowe, a cultural anthropologist who dissects business cultures.

To begin with, the banker in pinstripes should never underestimate the significance of the loan process for the entrepreneur in shirtsleeves. What may be a routine transaction for the banker is a significant and stressful social event of transition -- up there with marriage or death -- for the small-business owner, Mr. Lowe said.

The customer's stress puts the banker in a delicate position. On the one hand, he or she should not insult the prospective borrower by appearing to have little authority in lending circles. On the other hand, the banker must not intimidate the borrower with an authoritarian posture.

Small-business people often bemoan the junior status of loan officers, particularly their need to ask the main office for authority to make the loan. "It's not only inconvenient," Mr. Lowe said, "it's jarring to the small businessman's confidence in the bank."

At the same time, he advised bankers to soften the sanctified image they hold in society: "Banks have the money, money is power, and they store that power in a central location deep within the bank."

Loan officers "have special dress and are given authority and respect," Mr. Lowe said. "But they must still remove the stress from the loan process."

Ritual Needs of Customers

Mr. Lowe pointed out that many credit unions have successfully managed the toned-down approach, or -- in his language -- learned the ritual needs of customers. They send friendly letters, offer sometimes corny promotions, and create a folksy atmosphere.

Mr. Lowe plies his trade at Holen North America, a business research and consulting firm based in New York. The firm has done extensive research on small businesses through personal interviews, on-site observation, and focus groups.

Visual Stimuli

Mr. Lowe advises bankers to focus on rituals, or routines:

* Warm handshakes.

* A willingness to advise the customer on alternate places for financing.

* Referrals to other professionals, so the entrepreneur can learn how to prepare a proper balance sheet.

"There's really not enough symbolism in banking," Mr. Lowe said, indicating a need for visual stimuli -- workbooks or attractive loan-document folders -- to improve the customer's perception of value received.

He also urges early involvement by senior bankers to go beyond the ceremonial. "Make sure it's more than a ribbon cutting effort," he said. "Lenders should not just show up to hand over the check."

Ms. Franzoni, a freelance banking reporter, is based in Springfield, Mo.

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