I was talking recently with the CEO of the new community bank in my town and asked him how things were going.
"We have five other banks and thrifts within two blocks of us," he sighed, "and a new one is opening up this spring."
He didn't have to say more.
Getting people to change banks is a major job. They have to get new checks printed, transfer automatic bill payment and payroll deposits, give up relationships that have been developed over years, and generally change their routine.
Many bankers think the only way to grow is to attract businesses and people moving into town. But this is a slow and uncertain process. Others try to befriend people the established banks have insulted or otherwise alienated through policy changes, fee increases, and the like.
I was thinking about the CEO's predicament and came up with a Top 10 list of ways banks like his can build business amid heavy competition. I do not list them in order of importance, since each bank may find that some are more useful in their community than others.
Start a gift campaign. You can do this both with new accounts and with customers adding to established ones. It should be a valuable gift - a free safe deposit box for a year, for instance - but you should stipulate stiff penalties to discourage those who would open an account just for the gift and promptly close it.
Offer to buy account switchers' unused checks. A good ratio would be three to one - three of yours for one of the old bank's. A big reason people won't switch banks is their unwillingness to throw out blank checks they have paid for.
Establish unique operating hours. Stay open in the evening, or open early, for example.
Hire contact people from other banks who have a big following. Customers may be so fond of someone that they would move their accounts to continue doing business with them.
Try to be the first to greet new arrivals. You can do this by checking local newspapers, official records, and real estate agencies.
Set up promotion programs. Give staff members - especially directors - weekend trips and other rewards for meeting new-business goals.
Visit, visit, visit. Some bankers will go to retail businesses in person on the coldest, nastiest day of the year to show these would-be customers how serious they are about doing business with them.
Ask and listen. As new customers come in, find out what specifically made them leave their former banks. If you find a pattern, you can capitalize by promoting your bank's antidote.
Start an event. Something like a weekly or monthly award to the best student in each local school, or a dinner to honor students with special achievements, can do a lot more good for a lot less money than traditional advertising can.
Be there. It pleases potential and established customers to see top bank people in the lobby ready to talk with them and serve them.
You will notice I have not included low rates on loans or no-fee banking in this list. The reason is simple: Business generated by being the low-cost bidder can quickly leave when someone comes along with even lower rates. The same holds true for promotional service rates.
Maybe some of these things will work for you. Maybe some or all won't. But you should at least consider them. Trying something new is better than doing nothing but bemoaning the fact that there are so many banks around. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.