When the most valued customers of Riverside National Bank in Fort Pierce, Fla., visit their branch, they do not have to stand in line; they just call ahead, and a teller is waiting to serve them when they arrive.
Riverside, with $1.1 billion of assets, began offering the service last year to let its best customers - about 10% of its account holders - know they are appreciated. The extra attention to these customers is a chief reason why deposits grew 20% last year, compared to an average of 12% in previous years, according to senior vice president Robert McGuffin.
"Instead of opening the door and hoping the right people walk in so we can make money, we are able to target a certain group and get results," said Mr. McGuffin.
It is no secret that the bulk of a bank's profits are generated by the small percentage of its customers who maintain high balances or have multiple accounts. But over the years many banks that have grown large have forgotten whom those customers are, said Charles E. Wilson, a financial services industry consultant at IBM Corp.
Speaking at the American Bankers Association convention in Washington this week, Mr. Wilson said many banks are starting to reevaluate the importance of contact with their most valued customers and are slowly changing to please them.
"In the past three to five years, banks have begun focusing on customer relationship management and practices to keep their best customers," Mr. Wilson said. "And they have been borrowing from friends, and neighbors, and other industries."
For example, he said, some banks have pre-grand-opening parties for their most valued customers before the ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new branch, mimicking the pre-sales hours for valued customers in department stores. Or taking a cue from airlines' frequent-flier plans, some banks give their most valued and most active customers discounts or fee waivers on certain services.
Such promotions can also help bring in new business. Employees learn to know and recognize the best customers, helping to build relationships that often lead to referrals - and more deposits - Mr. McGuffin said.
"They say, 'Gosh, what a great bank,' and when we say, 'We need help,' they are willing to help," Mr. McGuffin said. "Our objective is to turn our customers into sales people."
Using sophisticated software, Riverside determined that only 10% of its 135,000 customers make money for the bank. It surveyed each of them to find out everything from their recreational interests to the easiest way to contact them and their biggest criticism of the bank, then it showed its appreciation by offering theater tickets, holding "most valued customer" breakfasts, and adopting the call-ahead teller program.
Mr. Wilson recounted that a New York bank rewarded top-tier customers with a deep-sea fishing trip. And First Federal of the South in Sylacauga, Ala., asked its most valued customers about their hobbies and interests and then used this information to select gifts - such as golf tees and fishing lures - to reward them for referrals.
To find out exactly who these customers are, banks look at profitability first and then factors such as length of time at the bank, types of accounts, and number of referrals, Mr. Wilson said. He added that the top tier are not necessarily the largest depositors but rather those who have a number of accounts and services and keep most of their money in the bank.
"It has nothing to do with wealth," Mr. Wilson said. "It is about what these folks contribute to the profitability and value of the bank."