Community banks have suffered from the overall decline in bank stock prices. One reason may be fear of what Internet banking may do to these smaller institutions.
Internet banks have no brick-and-mortar costs and much lower personnel costs, so they can offer much higher interest rates to attract deposits. But there is another side to consider: Having real people for customers to talk to is a major advantage.
Many analysts of banking and the economy in general will stake their reputations on the idea that people want human beings to talk to, to advise them, and especially to correct errors that computers and those who stuff them with data continually make.
So having people in the bank to serve customers, instead of being a negative, can be the biggest positive for a bank - especially if an on-the-spot decision is needed to clear up a problem.
All too often, we are forced to deal with so-called "service representatives" who provide anything but service.
I get a statement from my medical group charging me for seeing a doctor I've never heard of. In trying to fix the mistake, when I finally do get to talk to a human (a major achievement), she does not have the power to correct what is an obvious error in recording data. Rather, her job is to explain to me why the company is correct and I must pay the bill.
Having a human at a desk in a branch close to my home who can solve my problems while I wait is an asset that no dot-com bank can offer. And there are many horror stories of people giving up on Internet banking.
Sure, all banks will soon have Web sites and offer on-line services. But those employing people with the power to help should still win the day, despite lower interest payments on deposits.
Another major advantage the brick-and-mortar bank has is the opportunity to cross-sell services. With the Glass-Steagall Act now dead, banks can earn a substantial portion of their revenue from selling investments.
Look at the opportunity this gives the brick-and-mortar bank. Your potential customers come in to see you in person. You have the chance to let them know what you have to offer. But so often, banks don't make the most of it.
Where do your richest customers go? To the vault. Who staffs the vault? People with little or no knowledge of anything to do with investing. Can't this be remedied?
What about customers who are retired? Going to the bank is often a big event for them. They don't want to bank on-line. Can't you make this more enjoyable for them by having an alcove with coffee where they can sit a while and visit with other people?
How about a special teller line for customers who have used the bank for a decade, or some other feature that separates them from regular customers? This is what we love most about airline mileage clubs: They make us feel we are "above the pack." Such preferences make people enjoy coming into the bank.
What about having separate alcoves so visitors to platform officers can have privacy - giving their transaction an air of greater importance? People hate to sit in a lobby within earshot of others to discuss private matters such as late loan payments or wire transfers of funds.
When a bank office staffed with trained, empowered people can offer so much, will the community bank lose out to the impersonal world of the Internet? I think not. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.