While some expect the community banks of the future to look like something out of "The Jetsons," bankers and industry consultants say it's the homey touch that will allow community banks to compete against deeper- pocketed national and regional rivals.
Community banks won't need to offer on-line banking or video tellers, these experts said, but they may want to sell stamps and nursing home insurance.
"The banks that identify customers' needs and lock those customers in are the ones that are going to do very well," said Michael P. Moran, a partner at New York's KPMG Peat Marwick. That means using available technology to find out exactly who customers are-and what they want from a branch.
Some community banks are already employing sophisticated data programs to profile their customer bases. Others are using old-fashioned ways to figure out who needs what products.
William Donius, senior vice president at Pulaski Bank in St. Louis, said a new data analysis computer program is redefining the way the 75-year-old bank does business.
Mr. Donius said he never knew that most of his bank's customers are older than 60. Nor did he have any way of knowing who his bank's top customers were.
Now, armed with the new analysis, Pulaski is looking into offering nursing home insurance. It has also given each branch manager a list of the top 1% of customers and ordered the managers to meet with them individually by Oct. 31.
"We want to personally thank them for being our best customers," said Mr. Donius. "We also want to use it as a selling opportunity to find out how we can earn more of their business."
Mr. Moran, who led a discussion on community banks in 2005 at a recent America's Community Bankers conference, said he is working with banks on how to improve customer service by better targeting customers. He uses the example of a bank that widened its drive-through bays because aging customers couldn't easily negotiate the existing lanes. Another bank is installing postage stamp kiosks to save customers a trip to the post office.
He's also encouraging community bankers to use data analysis and demographic projections to determine the customer base in 2005 and to find out who the best-and the potentially best-customers are. They can also determine who are the least profitable or "inertia" customers.
This kind of research could help a bank identify the common characteristics of its best customers and what kind of products and services attract them, he said.
Mr. Moran noted that data analysis informed one client that residents near one of its branches spent more than the national average on home improvements. As a result, the bank created a home improvement loan program at that branch.
But bankers say researching customers doesn't have to be high-tech. It could be done as simply as by instructing branch managers to meet with customers one on one.
Oak Valley Community Bank in Oakdale, Calif., for example, employs a customer service representative at each branch whose job is to make routine visits to business customers and to call depositors, reminding them that their certificates of deposit have matured.
Then there's the creative approach. After sponsoring a women's volleyball tournament, a California bank realized that its customers-and future customers-were big fans of the sport.
David Hardin, executive vice president at Hawthorne Savings in El Segundo, gave partial credit for a rise in deposits at the bank's Manhattan Beach branch to its beach volleyball affiliation.
"To be a successful community bank, you have to get involved in the community," Mr. Hardin said, explaining the volleyball success.
But Robert Clore, community bank analyst at Cowen & Co., Albany, said small banks won't be able just to rely on the personal touch to compete in the future. And some, particularly those in urban areas, are finding that out.
Cornerstone Bank, a $112 million-asset institution in Stamford, Conn., discovered through customer research that its customers want the technology offered at larger banks.
Fearful of losing market share, James Jakubek, executive vice president, said Cornerstone is preparing to offer Internet banking. "We're not going to sit back and say we don't have it and we're never going to have it," he said.