Like many community bankers, Charles T. Doyle never had much use for formal marketing research.
But two years ago, Mr. Doyle, the chief executive officer of Texas Independent Bancshares in Texas City, consented to a comprehensive telephone survey of his customers. He became a believer.
"I always felt that research was simply going to confirm what my officers and I had learned through word of mouth and direct contact with customers," said Mr. Doyle. "But the results were surprising."
For example, they showed his customers had more relationships with other financial institutions than Mr. Doyle had imagined. The realization led to an expansion of product offerings at the $300 million-asset bank.
Increasingly, community bankers are traveling the same research road- following, in their more modest way, the large financial institutions that reflexively fork over millions of dollars a year to researchers and consultants for insights into the habits, sentiments, and even the profitability levels of customers and prospects.
While no studies have been done in recent years to assess the market research habits of community bankers, observers of the small-bank scene say more and more of them are investing in everything from focus groups to fancy data base and profitability analysis software.
This is particularly true among community banks with assets of at least $200 million, said Monique Hanis, director of marketing for the Independent Bankers Association of America.
"They are learning that they can't rely totally on their own observations and instincts," she said.
But many banks-especially the smaller ones-continue to be put off by the price of knowledge.
A typical focus group-in which eight or so people are quizzed for an hour and a half by a professional moderator-costs $3,500 to $4,500.
A telephone survey-which can size up the opinions of 200 or more respondents to deliver statistically reliable conclusions about the market- might run anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000.
And the data analysis software needed to probe purchasing patterns and household profitability might run $100,000 or more a year.
"Many banks don't want to pay for it," said Susan Bellows, a marketing consultant based in Worcester, Mass. "As soon as they learn what it is going to cost them, they shy away."
The belief that community bankers knew their customers well enough to bypass scientific research may have been more justified at a time when their businesses were simpler and competitors fewer, observers said.
But in recent years, the small-bank executive has faced a wider array of tough bank and nonbank competition that justifies heavy use of direct mail and on-line marketing techniques.
"We tell bankers that the competition is sitting in the customer's mailbox," said Ms. Hanis.
In addition, as urban sprawl has turned many outlying towns into bedroom communities, bankers find themselves serving a richer mix of customers.
Take Harold L. Swindell, chief operating officer at Etowah Bank in Canton, Ga. In recent decades, the community that the $374 million-asset bank serves has been transformed from a textile mill region to a far northern suburb of Atlanta.
To understand his changing customer base, Mr. Swindell has used bank staff to prepare occasional questionnaires for inclusion in monthly statements. He has also relied on government demographic data to gather more information about his town's population.
The results from a questionnaire caused Mr. Swindell to scrap plans to launch a home banking initiative.
While Mr. Swindell is a convert to the value of market research, he stops short at spending money on a variety of research tools, such as phone surveys and focus groups.
But a growing number of bankers are embracing the more sophisticated possibilities.
Robert N. Barone, chairman of Comstock Bancorp, a $160 million-asset company in Reno became serious about market research about three years ago after a period of unprecedented growth.
The bank had more than tripled in assets in three years, adding many customers. "We knew we didn't know our own customers, and we thought it was about time to get to know them," Mr. Barone said.
Using data base software supplied by an outside firm, the bank broke customers down into A, B, and C categories based on profitability.
"The objective become to build a fence around the A customers-to give them the best service we could," he said. "We took the B customers and tried to make them A's."
As for the C customers-who were often unprofitable-bank personnel were instructed not to work too hard to keep their business. The bank learned many of these customers were often assumed by branch employees to be among their best.
Anthony S. Abbate, chief executive officer of $520 million-asset Interchange Financial Services Corp., Saddle Brook, N.J., is also a fan of data base analysis. He has been using it since the early 1980s.
Mr. Abbate's bank uses software that shows the profitability of a given product offering, a household, and even an individual customer.
"We know who our best customers are, and we know who our worst customers are," the banker said.
The analysis helped Mr. Abbate obtain the percentage of Bergen County households that his bank has accounts with, as well as the "wallet share" of each of those households.
Mr. Abbate also likes focus groups to gain a more qualitative feel for customer attitudes. He seeks insights by reviewing tapes of these sessions instead of merely relying on a written summary.
As chairman of the IBAA's marketing committee, Mr. Abbate urges smaller banks to do more in the way of customer analysis.
"Smaller banks often put a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing," he said. "They think they know their customers, but they don't."