Nearly every small business uses one, but most say their primary bank is not very good at understanding the kind of services they want or the way they want products delivered.
That's the picture from a survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp. The firm canvassed 225 small companies with sales ranging from $1 million a year up to $25 million a year. Respondents came from manufacturing, wholesale, retail, service, financial services, and construction companies.
Of those responding to the survey, 38% held the top post - president, chairman, or chief executive - in their companies. Eighteen percent were owners, and 19% were financial officers. The rest held other high executive positions.
Overall, responses to the survey show small businesses are lukewarm to the kinds of products and the level of service offered by their primary banker.
"Small businesses are saying there is a lot of room for improvement," said Jeff Resnick, a senior vice president and director of financial services with Opinion Research. "In areas that are fairly important to small business, banks are receiving mediocre marks."
For example, when asked for ratings on their primary bank's ability to handle problems or inquiries, 50% said they were either extremely satisfied or very satisfied with their banks' performance. When asked about convenience - intuitively a strong point for banks because of their extensive branch networks - these companies gave their bank high marks 55% of the time.
Respondents were even more disappointed when asked whether they trusted their primary bank for financial advice. Only 38% ranked their bank in the top categories on this question.
"Given that banks' intention and desire is to become their clients' financial advisor, it's really disheartening to see them rated lower on trust than on handling problems," said Les Dinkin, a consultant with NBW Consulting Group of Wesport, Conn. "To me, that's a tremendous level of dissatisfaction."
He said the data also shows that companies with higher revenues are less satisfied with the service they are receiving than are their smaller compatriots. While 63% of small companies expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the attention they receive from their bank, only 46% of companies with revenues from $5 million to $15 million expressed the same level of satisfaction. Likewise, larger companies' responses fell short of their smaller competitors when asked about their bank's dedication to serving small businesses.
This attitude is likely the result of the experience of the larger companies and their need for more complex products and services, said Mr. Dinkin. "Because they themselves have become more sophisticated and have more experience, they are less satisfied with their banks," he said.
Not everything in the survey is negative, however. Of the respondents, 93% said they used banks as a provider of financial services. Nonbank financing companies, equipment manufacturers and brokerage firms all reached between 20% and 22% of the respondents.
Mike Berlin, a senior vice president with NatWest Bancorp. in New York, said he believes those numbers show the banking industry's strength with small companies.
"The use of other finance companies appears to be for special-purpose financing," he said. "These people have been around a long time, and many of them are financing the sale of their own equipment."
He said the survey shows the difficulties bankers face in trying to serve this market segment. While some like the presence of the traditional branch, others like direct sales calls.
"You do have to distinguish what people want and what they are willing to pay for," said Mr. Berlin. "A lot of the problem goes back to the banking industry not understanding their costs very well."
Still, the survey suggests that banks have left the door open for nonbank competitors to enter the market. Mr. Dinkin said the data indicates these competitors may already be stepping up to the plate.
"Clearly (some) firms have found it easier and more attractive to start working with nontraditional financial service providers," he said.