In America, everyone recognizes the value of small businesses. Small businesses are the economic foundation of towns and neighborhoods, driving job growth and bringing energy and vitality to communities. With their local roots, relationships and market knowledge, community banks ought to enjoy a competitive advantage in providing banking services to local businesses. Yet, large banks account for about three-quarters of the small business banking market. 

Community banks have yet to fully tap the small business market. Taking productive steps to develop strong and lasting relationships with local businesses should be an essential part of a community bank's strategy to increase their market share, revenue and profitability.

Today, small businesses make up on average about 10% of a bank's customer base and 35% of the revenues, as measured by number of accounts according to EMI Marketing research. In order to compete and grow, banks must be able to efficiently deliver small business customers the right products at the right price, via personalized experiences designed to keep small businesses with the bank.

Customer opinion surveys clearly show that the most powerful first step community banks can take to increase small business customer satisfaction and retention is to focus on developing strong, personal relationships with local small business owners. It all begins with saying hello and getting to know their needs.

A November 2012 J.D. Power and Associates survey, for example, reveals that small business owners highly value being greeted by name when they visit their branch. Yet a simple greeting is offered significantly less often to small business customers (47% of the time) than to retail bank customers (64% of the time). That's true even though small business owners visit the branch twice as often.

The J.D. Power research also underscores the importance of assigning an account manager to manage each small business account. Small business customers are more than twice as likely to reuse bank services when they have a dedicated account manager (47% versus 19%). But having an account manager isn't enough. The manager must also understand the customer's business. Respondents reported that having an account manager who didn't understand the business was no better than having no account manager at all. The bottom line: Do not bother to assign an account manager who won't take the time to truly understand the business.

A separate Aite study in 2012 reported similar findings. That research also found that small businesses require greater financial assistance and new tools as they struggle to access credit during this sluggish economic recovery. Community banks have the opportunity to fill this void for their small business customers. Account managers can assist by providing a high-touch level of customer service. The Aite survey indicates that about 41% of small businesses do have a dedicated account manager as the point person for their bank's financial needs. This study also found that, of those small business banking customers who were "dissatisfied" or "extremely dissatisfied" with their primary financial institution, 65% did not have a relationship manager. However, it takes more than the mere presence of an account manager to ensure a harmonious relationship. What's required is a highly engaged relationship manager who clearly understands the customer's small business needs will keep small businesses banking with the institution.

Several easy-to-implement procedures can have a rapid and measurable payback for community banks. First, financial institutions need to find out who the potential small business customers are and develop plans to get to know them. Most importantly, bank associates need to greet customers by name when they visit the branch. Financial institutions should also implement training and monitoring programs that will increase consistency across all branches and make sure that relationship-building techniques are practiced successfully branch to branch.

Banks must also identify the most valuable small business customers and assign motivated account managers to the top accounts. The stakes are highest with these relationships and community banks cannot afford to lose their high-performing accounts to competitors.

Just as small businesses are the growth engines for cities and towns across the country, they can also contribute to the growth and stability of local banks. Banks that, in addition to providing loans and banking services, also develop strong, personalized relationships with small business owners will generate mutual sustained value. The banks that do so will have their small business customers at hello and beyond.

George Noga is the senior vice president of revenue enhancement for Fiserv.