Contributed Column

Eye on Banking

by Jim Keyes
Citizens Bank – Vermont

Adjusting to a changing landscape

Let's give some thought to the well-known advice to "think globally and act locally." This saying summarizes an intelligent strategic course for banks throughout the Vermont landscape.

I have the unique perspective of a banker who became very familiar with Vermont's banking industry in the early 1990s, relocated for a few years, and then recently returned to lead Citizens Bank in Vermont. The changes in our economy are broad and exciting.

Businesses in Vermont are increasingly reaching outside our borders for new markets and customers. Businesses from outside Vermont are reciprocating that spirit, creating a new and vibrant marketplace.

With this dynamic business environment, a fresh balance must be struck between the challenges of a global marketplace and the hometown roots of relationship-based banking. A small business in Northfield, for example, can now compete on a worldwide stage from a home-based office with a broadband Internet connection. The benefits of this new, expanded economy are clear and will shape the way we do business for many years to come.

This phenomenon has transformed not only our state's small businesses, but also our banking industry. For several years, new banking partners from all areas of New England have joined Vermont's communities. These new players offer a double benefit to our communities by increasing the number of corporate citizens and stimulating the banking community to continually improve services and products.

Building Meaningful Relationships

Even with huge advances in communication technology, handshakes and local phone calls remain the service standard preferred by customers. Unfortunately, today's business climate occasionally forces customers to fit a standardized mold cast by banks and financial institutions. This business model may work in more urban environments, but in the Vermont marketplace, savvy institutions will view all operations through a lens of premier customer service.

Plainly said, when we pick up the phone with a question, concern or request, we want a local voice to greet us with a helpful resolution.

Competition keeps pencils sharp

In a growing business environment, customers demand the best combination of service and products to meet their diverse needs. A vibrant banking market creates a "shoppers' market" and offers a variety of choices to companies seeking banking partners. Undoubtedly the most favorable scenario for customers, it presents a constant challenge to financial institutions.

It means banks must undergo continual efforts to freshen their look, products and services. No detail can be overlooked when competitors are hungry to increase market share. It's simple supply-and-demand economics: Competition keeps your banker's pencil sharp and focus centered on you, the customer.

The competitive banking environment means an increase in corporate citizenship, as well. Banks are widely known as excellent community partners as they invest in the growth and well-being of the neighborhoods they serve. From philanthropy to financing community development projects, banks bring a high level of corporate social responsibility to the marketplace.

Evaluating the field

The key for business owners or customers is to identify banking partners that best suit their needs, both short and long term. Don't be afraid to ask how a bank can help you realize your vision. With so many choices, today's banking customers can be selective, and should be.

Here are two simple things to keep in mind when choosing a banker:

• Find someone (a person and an institution) you like and trust and who you are confident will deliver high-quality services. The ideal banking partner will offer a wide range of products and services, a convenient, accessible geographic reach and, most important, a philosophy rooted in building meaningful customer relationships.

• Carefully itemize what your banking needs are right now, but also your best guess as to what they will be in five to 10 years. Will this banker be able to meet those needs and help you reach your goals?

Vermont's banking market is growing and moving in a positive direction. A burgeoning industry brings jobs, creative thinking and solid community partners. With an active, competitive environment, Vermont is fortunate to be a customer's market and should continue in this direction for years to come. •

Jim Keyes is president of Citizens Bank's Charter One franchise in Vermont.

Index of Contributed Columns

For information on submitting a contributed column see here.