Community bankers who empower employees to make decisions have a competitive edge over big banks when it comes to pleasing customers-and the employees themselves.

Customers want immediate answers. They don't want to hear that their requests will be taken up with higher management. They don't want to hear "We will get back to you."

Equally important, the employee who is empowered to make decisions instead of merely forwarding the request upward is a more responsive, happier, and more useful worker.

But many big banks deny empowerment to their employees. That's why so many community banks attract business when the bank across the street is bought by a larger bank.

Of course, some large banks are exceptions to the rule.

I recently wrote about a superregional that seemingly empowered its staff so much that a platform officer reimbursed a customer for calls he made to the bank when his ATM card didn't work on a trip to Hungary.

The customer, one of my friends, was refunded $43 on the spot. The bank asked me for that officer's name.

Was this an exception? Had this big bank empowered the employee?

Half my banking friends think so. They say the bank wanted the officer's name to reward her.

The other half figure the idea was to punish her for giving out $43 without permission.

Another friend of mine is a lesson in the demoralizing effect of empowerment withdrawn.

This friend has worked for a bank for decades. He used to be an enthusiastic employee, but now, despite his high title and generous salary and options, he can't wait to retire.

"What happened?" I asked him recently. He had once been the No. 1 flag waver for his organization.

Now, he said, he is under such pressure to cut costs and streamline "everything" that he has to check every expense with headquarters.

He said he used to tell top management what he needed for travel and expenses for the year ahead and what he expected to generate in revenue. "If I met my promises, I was left alone," he said.

But now he can't even take $5,000 to reward employees who work late on an emergency project, or throw a dinner to thank the employees and their spouses, who are affected by extra hours.

I asked him what caused the change. The answer probably won't surprise most bankers.

"Wall Street," he replied.

Now, he said, the only thing his bank's management thinks about is the bottom line. It used to be customers first, employees second, and shareholders third. Now it's shareholders first, employees last.

He said it is especially difficult for employees in their late 40s, who often have nowhere else to go.

I compare that to banks that staff their branches in high-crime areas with employees who have only a couple of years left until they retire.

Younger people could move to another bank. These older people have no alternative.

Employee empowerment helps community banks survive and thrive in a world of giants. Often, at the larger banks, forces beyond the control of branch employees determine many of their actions.

I vividly remember a friend at another superregional telling me of a colleague in his thirties who resigned even though his salary and options would soon have made him a millionaire.

"This is not the company it used to be," the man explained.

Many of that bank's customers are likely to feel that way, and take their business to a smaller bank.

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