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Banking: Trouble at the Teller Window

Banks may love small businesses, but small businesses don't love their bankers. That's one conclusion drawn from the inaugural Small Business Banking Satisfaction Survey, produced by Westlake Village (Calif.)-based researchers and consultants J.D. Power & Associates (which, like BusinessWeek, is owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies). In the third quarter of 2006, J.D. Power surveyed nearly 5,000 small businesses with annual revenues between $100,000 and $10 million to measure their satisfaction levels with their banks.

PNC Bank scored highest overall, helped by its high marks for developing excellent customer relationships and offering the best depository services. Wachovia did best at resolving customer disputes and ranked highest in online services. Washington Mutual scored well on fees, with only 12% of its customers paying them, compared to 39% overall.

But more than half of small businesses report having a problem with their bank in the past year, compared with 31% of retail customers. That's the case even though small businesses are a more significant source of income for banks. Business owners carry average balances of $207,000, more than 25 times greater than the average consumer balance, the report says.

Curiously, the entrepreneurs that were happiest with their banks didn't have particularly good relationships with their dedicated business banker. Instead, they got along well with their branch loan officer or their branch manager. "In some banks, a business manager covers a number of branches to look out for small business, and it does not work as well," says Jeff Taylor, senior director of the banking practice for J.D. Power. He adds that the branch manager and loan officer may have discretionary influence over banking snafus, enabling them to waive fees, approve loans, or solve other problems.

Entrepreneurs do have alternatives, of course. The larger the business, the more likely it is to take its money elsewhere. Some 13% of businesses with more than $5 million in revenues said they had switched banks in the last year, compared to 10% of smaller companies. There's nothing quite like voting with your feet.

By Jeremy Quittner

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