Spokane Journal of Business

Question banking relationship to determine best fit

Compare company's needs with institution's abilities before deciding to switch

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The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of your business relationships and make sure your professional service providers and partners are still a good fit for your company and its changing needs. When it comes to assessing your banking relationship, here are five questions you should ask your banker.

1. Is your banking team aligned with my company's financial needs?

Every business is different, so there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to banking. In determining whether your bank is the best match for your company's needs, review the specific services offered, the associated fees (since they may not be completely transparent), and the level of service you were provided during that last year.

In the past, commercial bankers often worked individually; however, with the business and financial industry becoming more complex, financial institutions are increasingly adopting a team model for commercial banking. A team provides you with more technical expertise, which is helpful if you use cash management, lending, or international banking services.

Sometimes, it also makes sense for the principals of a company to use the same bank for their own personal wealth management and financial planning. This approach may allow them to leverage additional banking services or access more advantageous interest rates, so ask your banker about those options when evaluating the bank's offerings.

Finally, in addition to making sure the products and services are a good match for your company's needs, be sure to consider the overall health and direction of the bank. Is your banker's incentive structure aligned with the long-term best interests of your business? Does the bank have excessive exposure to risk that could have a negative impact on your business or be distracting to your banker?

2. How will your bank handle the growth of my company?

If you expect your company to experience significant growth in the not-too-distant future, you'll want to make sure your bank is ready to support your expansion.

Your banker should have a thorough knowledge of your industry, and he or she also needs to be committed to understanding your specific business profile, especially your cash flow and capital requirements. Growing companies often need more diversified products and services, and your company's banking needs may become more complex. For example, you might want to add treasury management services, owner-occupied commercial real estate financing, and a line of credit for growth or seasonal needs.

You'll also want to make sure the bank's footprint is compatible with your expected growth, especially if you're planning a geographic expansion.

3. What are you and the bank doing to protect my company and me from fraud?

Identity theft, financial fraud, and security breaches are constantly cited in the news. Security is never 100 percent guaranteed, of course, but there are many steps your bank can and should take to help protect you and your company.

You should ask your banker not only about the back-end surveillance expertise and security algorithms the bank deploys to identify and prevent fraud, but also what programs or advice the bank provides to help customers implement security measures at their company. For example, does the bank offer best business practices seminars on reducing the risk of fraud? Or at least make recommendations? One example of a suggestion is this: Have a dedicated computer for online banking to prevent viruses from entering the computer and to ensure that all transactions come from a single identifiable IP address.

Here's where another benefit of the team approach to commercial banking comes in: there are more eyeballs on your cash flow to identify potentially fraudulent transactions. Multiple layers of preventive measures are generally most effective. Such an approach might include banking-team surveillance, back-end technical monitoring, and training seminars for business owners.

4. What is your bank's level of community involvement?

Banks play a critical role in supporting communities, both directly, by helping create a strong local economy, and indirectly, through volunteerism, grants, sponsorships, and other corporate social responsibility projects that contribute to a vibrant culture. If the economic vitality of your community is important to you, you'll want your bank to be a supportive presence in your city or neighborhood.

Does the bank play a leadership role in the community? Do the bank's values align with your personal values and those of your business? You want to make sure you're working with a good corporate citizen that is committed to investing in the communities where it operates.

5. What is your motivation for being a business banker?

If your banker is burned out or just punching the clock, you likely won't receive the level of service you expect and deserve. Your bank's goal should be to help you realize your business objectives, so your banker should be asking how he or she can help you grow your business. You want a banker who is stimulated by the chance to learn more about your business and eager to help your company grow.

You also need to make sure your banker is someone you trust and enjoy working with. Commercial banking is a service-oriented and relationship-based undertaking, and you need to establish a good rapport with the key members of your banking team to attain the best service possible.

Most ordinary transactions don't require in-person contact with your banker, but if you've only banked online and have no one at the bank to advocate for you, you're less likely to receive a loan or line of credit when you need one.

You're also missing out on the opportunity to benefit from a banker's advice on the financial services and products that might be most useful to your company. A good banker also shares his or her insight into general economic trends and developments to help you make better business decisions. Your commercial banker is a valued member of your advisory team, and you should update him or her throughout the year on your financial situation and meet in person at least once a year.

How your banker answers these questions will help identify whether your banking relationship is still a good fit for your company based on your current needs, projected growth, and company values. Changing banking partners can be a hassle, but maintaining the status quo when it's no longer in your company's best interest will only limit your company's potential for success.

  • Alan Roberts

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