MBNA Corp. understands the importance of segmenting by profession and affinity group to get loyal customers.

Teachers, for example - those who carry a credit card from Chase or Citi tend to stick with it. Accountants, nurses, engineers, and many other professionals show the same loyalty.

What can a community bank learn from a giant specialty credit card company? Much. Though the products may be different, the principles involved in identifying and servicing a highly profitable niche can be applied to most community banks.

MBNA built its acquisition strategy on getting as many affinity groups as it could. As far back as the 1970s, when its competitors were mailing applications indiscriminately to millions of desperate households, MBNA was focused on getting the right customers - by marketing through affinity groups such as the National Education Association or Georgetown University.

The company built a specialized sales force, it customized product offerings to meet specific needs, and it created cards that featured each group's name and logo.

MBNA also does its own back-room processing. This, though more expensive, permits flexibility in making each group's package distinctive.

The bank also customizes its pricing and software to the needs of each of the more than 2,000 affinity groups it serves, enhancing its ability to hold on to tenured customers while marketing effectively to new ones.

Some of MNBA's competitors tried to emulate the affinity group strategy, but most found the result disappointing and eventually pulled out. There are several reasons why they failed:

*MNBA was not looking for pure volume and market share. Others were, and therefore repeated most of the mistakes they'd previously made with individuals. MBNA put so much care and money into targeting groups of high inherent loyalty that customer cash flow would become virtually perpetual.

*MBNA's superior customer-selection strategies left the competition nothing but scraps to fight over. MBNA not only picked off the best groups first, it developed an ability to single out the individuals in each group who were most likely to become highly profitable customers: those who carry substantial credit balances and still are good credit risks.

*In the credit card business, only two factors determine profitability: revolving balances and chargeoffs. Here, too, MBNA's customer selection strategy gave it an economic advantage, with chargeoffs of about 3% versus 5% to 6% for its competitors.

More important, because MBNA is not filling a leaky bucket, it doesn't have to bring in as many new customers to achieve a given level of growth. The best risks are the customers the company already knows, and MBNA has a higher percentage of long-term customers than any of its principle competitors.

According to MBNA's 1994 annual report, a typical customer had 14 years on the job and family income of $59,000, owns a home, and has been paying bills promptly for 14 years. At most companies, this is an A-plus customer. At MBNA, it's average.

MBNA did not grow credit card balances as fast as others; it ranked 38th in the early 1980s. But its customer acquisition and retention policies have since raised it to No. 2, with more than $19 billion in balances.

More than 3,800 affinity organizations endorse the company's credit cards. Its customers now include 827,000 teachers, 300,000 engineers, 200,000 attorneys, 325,000 nurses, half of the nation's dentists, 43% of all U.S. physicians, and 75% of medical students. Its customers carry balances that are 657% above the national average, use their cards 12% more than average, and spend 4% more per transaction.

Thoroughly researched customer selection strategies like MBNA's pay off over time - even if they go against dogma. More community banks should take heed.

Ms. Bird is chief operating officer of Roosevelt Financial Group, St. Louis.

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