The long-held notion that community banks, by definition, provide exceptional customer service is getting debunked.

Having local ties certainly gives small banks a strategic leg up, but a community connection alone does not guarantee excellent customer service, industry experts note. Rather, it requires extensive planning and smooth execution, experts say.

"Every bank hangs out a shingle saying they give the best service," says Don Macaulay, executive director of enterprise expansion and market development at Affinity Advisory Group. "Yet, when you call the bank, you can't get a live person on the phone. To me, great service is when you anticipate a customer's needs and you do something without having to be asked."

Customer service is hard to define. Experts say it includes everything from completing a simple transaction in a branch to offering mobile and online banking. Others believe it should include philanthropic work.

The art of customer service has become increasingly important as interest rates stay low and competition remains stiff. A recent study by CS Consulting Group found that small banks that focus on service, rather than offering the lowest pricing, had more success.

U.S. Bancorp (USB) made a similar observation in its April survey of small-business owners. Respondents listed several service-related items among the things they wanted from a bank, including an ability to adjust to meet their needs, offering networking opportunities and serving as a financial mentor.

"Is there anything unique about your bank and the way you conduct business?" says Joseph Cady, managing partner at CS Consulting. "If there's nothing unique, then why should your customers give you the extra look on the loan they need? It's about building up that loyalty and affinity."

Some banks, like Enterprise Bank & Trust in Clayton, Mo., have formalized efforts to provide customers, especially commercial clients, with a special touch. The $3.3 billion-asset unit of Enterprise Financial Services (EFSC), through its Enterprise University program, serves as a financial adviser to small businesses by providing free classes on topics like marketing strategies, using LinkedIn and maximizing the value of a business.

"Enterprise has never claimed to be the cheapest," says Kay Erb, director of Enterprise University. "If you're a rate shopper we're probably not the best choice for you. It's important to listen to your client and empower bank associates to do what's in the best interest of their client. Hopefully we have that here."

Large, organized programs can impress customers, but it is equally important to focus on routine service, experts say. That starts with proper training, says Paul Schaus, president and chief executive of CCG Catalyst Consulting Group.

In addition to focusing on the technical systems that employees use, training should include areas such as how to dress and greet customers. Banks should review their training programs periodically to make sure they do not grow stale, Schaus adds.

Training should also teach employees consultative selling, says Lynn David, chief executive of Community Bank Consulting Services. This means asking clients the right questions to make sure they receive the best products for their needs.

Once employees are trained, executives must have a system to monitor performance. Without periodic monitoring, such as surveys or mystery shopping, employees will revert to old habits within a few weeks of their training, David says.

For instance, David's firm once completed a mystery shopping test where a potential client asked about a first-time mortgage. The employee who answered the phone couldn't fully help the customer and asked that they call back in 90 minutes when the manager returned from lunch.

"That basically says they don't have time to talk with you," David says. "That's … shutting the door in the person's face."

Focus groups with current and potential customers are recommended, Schaus says. Such discussions can uncover shortcomings and reveal what competitors are doing right, he says.

Once information on customer service performance is gathered, it is often left forgotten, industry experts warn. It is critical to develop a plan to make changes based on feedback. Doing so requires linking incentives to customer service results.

Incentives can come in the form of rewards, such as cash bonuses, or recognition, says David Rose, chief executive of C-Level Marketing & Sales. "Surprisingly, people value recognition almost as much as reward," Rose says. "You just have to align the changes that you want to see with your recognition."

Customer service must also serve as a top priority when thinking about technology. There is a lot of variability to online banking, but the most successful sites make it easy for customers to find basic data, says Brian Clark, senior customer experience consultant at West Monroe Partners.

Banks must think about a customer's "entire life cycle," which includes people who are thinking about opening an account, Clark says. Websites should serve as more than just a brochure with product information. They should include make practical information, such as phone numbers and addresses, easy to find.

Banks also need to implement process that make it easier for employees across different areas — branches, online and call centers — to discuss customers' concerns.

"Being intentional and organized makes a huge difference," Clark says. "It will have an impact if you put the investment dollars in the right place."

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