two businessmen talking, bankers as advisorsFew businesses have made it through the past year completely unscathed. Whether it was a sudden drop in revenue, new safety regulations, or issues with payables, nearly every business owner had some sort of challenge to mitigate.

Barlow Research Associates found that more than 8 out of 10 small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) sought advice in the past year as they navigated the uncharted waters created by the pandemic. Barlow asked a panel of these SMBs specifically who they reached out to for business guidance during the past year’s events, and I have to tell you: It wasn’t a great showing for bankers.

For small businesses, bankers ranked behind accountants, other business owners, lawyers, Google, and business consultants, tying for fifth place with friends/family members. For middle market businesses, bankers ranked behind accountants and lawyers, and they tied with business consultants.

So, why aren’t bankers ranking higher among SMBs when it comes to their go-to for business advice? How can bankers improve their standing? Panelists said their banker could offer more personalized service and nurture the relationship with proactive outreach sharing their knowledge about the business owner’s company and industry.

Now that we know what SMB owners think their bankers are not doing, let’s examine ways that bankers can give their customers what they want — more personalized, proactive service and stronger relationships.

Become a more proactive business banker

To discuss how bankers can be more personalized and proactive with their clients, let me share my own story as an SMB owner. My business, Vertical IQ, doesn’t borrow money, but we do maintain a sizable operating account. That alone should be profitable for our bank, yet our banker rarely comes to me with ideas on how to make our business more successful. Even if those suggestions were subtle and only saved us, say, a few grand, it would still go a long way for our SMB.

Here are three simple ways that business bankers can offer a more personal and proactive experience when working with their SMB clients.

1. Consultative conversations: What if our banker came to us to share what other business owners are doing to thrive during the pandemic. Just a conversation. How far would that go? I can tell you as a business owner, it would make a real impression on me.

And having been a banker myself, I know that one of bankers’ most important assets is that they are dialed into so many businesses that they have a unique depth and breadth of knowledge. They have so many comparisons they can share with other business owners.

2. Sharing financials: Doing things like offering to share financial spreads is another easy way our banker could be more personalized and proactive in their client contacts. Even as a business owner, I don’t have easy access to all of our financial details. It would be valuable to have trends by year to see how our business is changing and evolving over time.

3. Regular, personalized touchpoints: Why not stay in touch with us digitally? It’s fast, pandemic-friendly, and low- or no-cost to a banker, but it would go a long way in building trust and loyalty from a business owner’s perspective. Maybe reach out three or four times a year to offer information on my industry such as a timely news article. It’s a simple touchpoint, but it shows my banker is thinking about me and my business and cares — and it reminds me that they will be there when we need money in the next few years.

Build better relationships

Providing personalized, proactive interactions, such as using the three tips above, is closely tied to building stronger relationships. When bankers build their client relationships on trust and mutual respect, they will naturally fall into the role of trusted advisor to their clients.

Again, as a business owner as well as a former banker, I have some firsthand experience with ways bankers can help deepen their relationships and achieve that “trusted advisor” status that they are striving for. Here are three ideas:

1. Listening: In his book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie notes that one of the most effective ways to connect with people isn’t by asking general questions but by asking specific ones. By asking your SMB client probing, insightful questions about their industry, and actively listening to their responses, you will build rapport and trust. You also will boost their likelihood of reaching out to you for business advice when they need it.

2. Share your network: Bankers tend to cross paths with a lot of different people. Why not use all of those connections to your SMB clients’ benefit?

When I was a fledgling banker, I went on a sales call with an experienced banker focused on business development. During a prospect meeting, he did something I’ll never forget: He asked the owner of a specialty chemical company to share the top five companies they’d like to do business with. My colleague, who had built an extensive network over the years, said, “Let me see if I can help you get their business.” I can’t think of many ways to boost your clients’ loyalty to you and your bank than if you can help them win new clients of their own.

3. Connecting centers of influence: Along a similar vein, bankers know a lot of other professionals. Another way to build clients’ trust and dedication is to connect them with the best accountant or the best lawyer you know. After all, having the best extended team in place can have a major impact on the success of their business too.

And don’t forget to share the best tools you know of too — QuickBooks, for instance. Sharing knowledge and advice like this can simplify their lives and help their business succeed, solidifying your relationship with them.

You can beat the odds

If you’re a banker or a bank leader, that research by Barlow was probably pretty jarring — I know it was for me. But another statistic in that study was even tougher to swallow: Only 1 out of 10 of the SMB panelists said they thought their banker could become someone they would ask for business advice. Yikes. That suggests that bankers have a lot of ground to make up.

But by using these suggestions on ways to be more personalized and proactive with their outreach, and build stronger relationships, I am confident bankers can indeed become one of their clients’ most trusted sources of advice.


Image credit: Mediensturmer, Unsplash

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