When it comes to winning the banking business of small companies, top-rated banks use a variety of strategies.

Citizens Financial Group Inc. applies technology and training for its staff, as well as its customers.

Capital One Financial Corp. uses a quantitative approach to market segmentation to identify prospects.

Fifth Third Bancorp relies on the basic blocking and tackling of banking to identifying customer needs.

"At a lot of banks small business is kind of a 'tweener' business," part of the bank's retail or its commercial segment, said Bill Alt, a vice president at Capital One in McLean, Va. "It's hard for it to get the attention it deserves."

These three financial companies are rated among the top performers in a customer-experience benchmarking exercise by ath Power Consulting Corp. of Boston, which sent small-business "secret shoppers" to more than 600 branches of 22 banks, mostly in the second and third quarters of this year. Frank Aloi, the founder and chief executive of ath Power Consulting, said the average experience score was 76% and that even those three banks, which ranked among the best in the business, scored only in the low to mid 80s.

In many cases, bankers failed to even try to assess the business customer's needs. About half asked for the prospect's company size, and fewer than 60% tried to determine the products and services the prospects were using from their current bank before talking about their own, Aloi said.

Though he would not disclose the scores of banks that did poorly, regionals and superregionals did best, Aloi said. "The big guys didn't do very well at all."

Small businesses can be valuable, he said. "These are higher-touch clients, but they're also two to three times more profitable than retail customers."

The three banks interviewed for this story all dedicate staff and resources specifically to the segment, and say they take a relationship approach rather than a transactional approach to prospects.

For instance, Citizens, the U.S. retail banking arm of Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC, dedicates specific resources and training to its small-business bankers, providing incentives and rewards.

"This is a discipline that takes a culture," said Kenneth B. Martin, an executive vice president at the Providence, R.I., banking company and its head of small-business and middle-market banking.

Citizens maintains a dedicated staff to serve individual businesses, with relationship managers and business development officers on the road to build business for specific branches. Citizens arms them with investments in technology — some as basic as laptops and BlackBerrys to make bankers accessible to clients while they are in the field — making it easier for bankers to process customer requests, Martin said. "Responsiveness in today's economy is certainly at a premium."

Citizens, for instance, is offering remote deposit of check images to businesses with as little as $500,000 in annual revenue, Martin said. "It is a product that has gone farther downstream than many in the financial industry would have expected."

Alt said Capital One also views small business as its own line of business with a dedicated staff and technology support.

The company has applied its mathematical models to drive its approach to the market, he said, and Capital One has changed its strategy as it has diversified from a credit card monoline into a more diversified, regional bank.

Innovation in small-business banking was focused on centralized underwriting and credit scoring in 1994, said Alt, but "we came to the realization that it's really the deposits that drive the value proposition."

This requires bankers to do more work in establishing a relationship, he said. "You have to take a lot of time to get to know the customer," Alt said.

Capital One's small-business group works closely with its private-client group to tackle business owners' personal banking needs, he said. "You have to look at that holistically as a household," he said. "It's not about squeezing every dollar of fee revenue out of the customer."

Fifth Third of Cincinnati also draws on private banking and retail when building financial packages for small businesses, said Michael Menyhart, a senior vice president and the director of customer experience.

"You also have the opportunity to deal with the employees and the personal accounts of the owners," he said.

Martin of Citizens said that, at its heart, small-business banking is an old-fashioned relationship business but that often bankers are distracted by competing interests. "You can't be in it one week, out of it another. You have to be committed to it."