When it comes to customer service, small businesses rate Huntington Bank (HBAN) as the country's best bank.

The Columbus, Ohio-based bank topped the industry for overall satisfaction among small business owners and financial decision makers, according to a survey released Friday by J.D. Power and Associates.

Small business customers gave the $56 billion-asset Huntington high marks for its branches, products, fees and information about their accounts, according to Jim Miller, senior director of banking at J.D. Power and Associates who oversaw the 2012 survey.

The plaudits helped Huntington earn an average rating of 793 on a 1,000-point scale. SunTrust Banks (STI) ranked second with a score of 774, and BB&T (BBT) ranked third with a score of 772. Huntington and BB&T landed in the top three for the second consecutive year, while SunTrust gained six spots from a year earlier.

For Huntington, which ranked No. 2 last year, the No. 1 ranking is a validation of its efforts in recent years to strengthen its small-business banking capabilities. In early 2010, when many banks were scaling back lending and staffing levels, Huntington committed to adding dozens of small-business bankers within its six-state market and since then it has added roughly 25,000 small-business relationships.

"We were calling on customers a year ahead of the competition," James Dunlap, a senior executive vice president and head of commercial banking at Huntington said in a recent interview with American Banker.

The survey measured satisfaction among 7,246 small businesses banking customers, which the survey defined as business with between $100,000 and $10 million in revenue annually.

Rounding out the top 10 were JPMorgan Chase (JPM), U.S. Bancorp (USB) and Union Bank of California, Regions Financial (RF), Comerica (CMA), TD Bank, and Bank of the West.

Chase was the biggest mover in the survey, jumping from No. 21 (out of 25) last year to No. 5 this year. According to Miller, Chase's small business customers reported greater satisfaction with their visits to branches and their interactions with relationship managers. "Chase had a very impressive increase this year over last year," he said.

Miller said each bank has its own strengths. For example, he said U.S. Bancorp's small-business customers tend to be more satisfied with the bank's fees and the quality of information about their accounts than small business customers in the industry generally. Union Bank's customers, meanwhile, tend to be particularly satisfied with how the bank handles them, the survey found. (Union Bank is owned by The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. of Tokyo).

Still, Miller said there is room for improvement.

Though satisfaction among small business customers rose 19 points, to an average of 736, compared with a year earlier, it lags a satisfaction average of 753 among retail banking customers.

One possible reason for the gap: all customers say they like to be greeted by name or thanked for their business, but bank employees extend such courtesies to small-business customers only about half the time, compared with roughly two-thirds of the time for retail customers, the survey found.

"A lot of the gap is around in-branch and live-phone experiences, where we would expect that based on the amount of time small business customers are in the branch, they'd actually get a better level of service and the branch would know them," Miller said.

Nearly half of small-business customers who have an account manager who "completely" understands their business say they "definitely will" use the bank again, compared with 19% who have an account manager who does not fully understand their business or to whom the bank has not assigned an account manager.

Similarly, 53% of customers who have an account manager who completely understands their business say they will not switch banks, compared with one in our four customers who have an account manager who does not know their business fully or who lack such a relationship.

Miller says the findings suggest that banks need to focus on three particular areas: preventing problems with the high-value customers; providing small-business customers a better level of service than banks are providing typical retail customers; and better managing relationships.

"Satisfaction goes down as the business sizes goes up, which is the exact opposite of what we'd like to see," he said.

Alan Kline contributed to this story.

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