CINCINNATI - As a veteran consumer banker, George Elliott is used to giving borrowers a quick answer.
But when his Ohio competitors started promising small-business customers 24-hour loan approval, the Star Banc Corp. executive worried that his bank might be missing a marketing opportunity. Then he saw that his rivals weren't able to deliver consistently.
"We've seen them back off it when they couldn't really provide what they were promising," said Mr. Elliott, senior vice president in consumer banking who oversees Star's new small business banking unit. "But I don't think we have seen anyone really demand something that quickly. From what we've seen, it's mostly banks competing against other banks."
With the advent of reliable credit scoring technology aimed at the micro end of the small business market, bankers will soon promise - and be able to deliver - answers in hours instead of weeks.
"The small-business customer is no different than you or I; once they've made a decision that they want something, they want it yesterday," said James Schmitt, vice president for marketing services in the small-business segment at Norwest Bank in Minneapolis.
"Faster answers is something we are looking at very seriously," he said, "but we're not there yet."
Indeed, several banks contacted said that the industry is less than a year away from having reliable credit scoring that can guarantee faster answers to borrowers. And the March 15 rollout of a Fair, Isaac/Robert Morris Associates credit scoring system for smaller commercial loans could accelerate that trend.
Martin "Dev" Strischek, president of RMA and an executive vice president at Barnett Banks Inc., said the new system should be especially useful in speeding approvals of loans of $35,000 or less to small businesses.
Of course, the marketing potential of faster approvals is not the principal reason banks are eager to use credit scoring. Most are focused on the ability to trim the amount of human time now spent processing smaller loans. Experts predict that consumer-style loan approvals would ultimately cut credit analysis from an average of 12 hours to as little as 15 minutes.
At Fleet Financial Group, the bank has been promising three-day turnarounds on loan applications as part of a broader marketing effort stressing easy access for small-business customers. Just last week, the Providence, R.I.-based company upped the ante by promising $250 in cash if the bank failed to meet that deadline.
"The power of a fast and easy process is something that customers have really reacted to," said Filomena Soyster, executive vice president in charge of small business banking at Fleet. "Many banks are promising, but they are not delivering."
So far, the strategy, pushed through advertisements and the company's 800 branches, has attracted new customers that Ms. Soyster believes are attracted by the service pledge. She estimated that, in some New England markets, 30& to 50% of all small-business loan applicants are new customers.
But as credit scoring becomes more widely used, the marketing pull of any one bank will likely diminish as the period for giving an answer contracts. "It will generally raise the bar for everyone," said Ms. Soyster.
Fortunately for bankers, small businesses in most markets still have low expectations after years of being forced to wait weeks for approvals.