How have community banks survived and thrived in today's competitive banking environment?

The usual answer is that they concentrate on customer service, quick response to requests, and handling errors efficiently.

In sum, the feeling is that the larger regionals, superregionals and money-center banks offer new "state of the an" services, but that the community banker looks at your eyeballs in making a loan and knows you by name, reputation, and even family history.

But the introduction to the ABA's extremely valuable new Community Banker's Toolbox for the Future should disabuse observers of the feeling that customer service is all the independent has to offer. It points out, to the contrary, that not only do community bankers have an intimate knowledge of their communities -- knowledge tier big competitors cannot match - but they also are deeply engaged in developing today's technical expertise to help serve their customer better.

Specifically:

* One third of community bankers responding to an ABA survey said that they are making plans to offer electronic banking to their customers through the personal computer.

* More than half said they are moving towards check imaging to cut check processing costs and deliver better service to checking account customer.

* Thirty-eight percent responded to the ABA survey that they now offer securities, including mutual funds. An additional 25% said these securities will soon be added to their service menus.

* More than half now offer annuities, and an additional 2% will soon offer them to their customers.

In sum, community banks may have the best of both worlds: The community involvement and local knowledge that customers want, and the more technical services that can be developed internally or can be gained from correspondents, vendors, and outsource providers.

The ABA Toolbox itself is the type of facility that allows the community bank to carry water on both shoulders.

This hefty looseleaf volume of ideas, exercises, reference sources, and cases is available free, but only to ABA members by calling (1-800-338-0626). The strategic issues covered are:

* Competition in today's marketplace.

* Financial services for tomorrow's customers.

* Using regulations to your advantage.

* Technology.

* Financial performance.

* Unleashing employees' full potential.

One can hope that community bankers will find this kit, prepared with the aid of 107 banker members of the ABA's Community Bankers Councils, valuable in meeting the challenges of remaining independent in today's environment. And, as they say, the price is right.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

Suggestion Box

How do you handle important people who do not show up at a meeting where information of significance is being dispensed?

It may be an important economic outlook talk or a speech by the CEO on where the bank is headed. Yet all too often we find attendance is well below the number expected.

Suggestion: Tape the talk and send it along on a cassette with a note saying, "We missed you but want you to share in the information we provided."

In some instances, if this has been a meeting followed by a reception, the tape can be accompanied by a miniature of some liqueur, with a note saying,

"We wanted you to share both in our information and our fellowship."

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