How Private Bank of Buckhead brings a human face to banking

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In a financial environment marred by low interest rates, tough regulation and low margins, banks are increasingly looking at cost cutting. Optimization, automation and advanced IT and software projects are the focus of attention from media, tech enthusiasts and financial consultants.

The downside of such efforts is that banking is becoming commoditized, as indicated by today’s low levels of customer loyalty. With all the techspeak about UX, one powerful customer experience channel is being overlooked: people.

A new customer questioning his bank about rates or credit limits rarely hears, “What do you want it to be?” That, however, is the approach taken by the Private Bank of Buckhead, a community bank in Atlanta.

“We are small enough that we can make decisions customer by customer,” said Charlie Crawford, president and CEO of Private Bankshares, the parent company of the Private Bank of Buckhead. “There is a role in our industry for mega banks and a nice role for banks like ours that can be smaller, nimbler and more customized for the clients.”

The Private Bank of Buckhead was founded 10 years ago and managed to grow and expand during perhaps the most turbulent of times for banking, opening up a mortgage division and additional locations.

Those 10 years were also marked by profound technological and sociological change brought about by the rise of the iPhone and mobile communication, which affected how people communicate, do business and bank.

Servicing the customers at the place and time of their choice has always been a pillar of the bank’s strategy. When it first launched, the bank expected to invest in couriers to pick up deposits from customers. Mobile deposits quickly replaced that strategy.

Though the bank has just two branches, it services customers from the entire Atlanta Metro area and even across state lines. The bank’s mortgage division services people in all 50 states.

“The role of the branch for us is more a place to house our employees and give the a launching point to go out and take care of customers in their places of business and homes,” Crawford said.

The bank’s employees hold a quarterly or semi-annual meeting with customers to keep abreast of their needs and concerns. A luncheon with select customers is also a common way for the bank to stay up to date with customers and top of mind. All staff members have their emails and direct phone numbers public in case a customer needs assistance.

Relationship banking is usually understood as a marketing tactic meant to increase cross selling to customers. In the case of the Private Bank of Buckhead, relationships are strategic, rather than tactical.

Being a small bank doesn’t hamper technological agility, says Crawford, adding that small banks are not as burdened by legacy systems and don’t need to develop things internally, as big banks do. By partnering with third party vendors, he said, the bank can offer cutting edge solutions to match its customers’ changing needs.

Community banks, like The Private Bank of Buckhead, play an important role in the economy, providing credit to businesses and individuals that might not be properly serviced using traditional credit scoring practices. It is the close relationship with customers, the academic theory goes, that helps to substitute for a prior borrowing history. It also helps to align the interests of the bank with its customers.

Community banks have taken a hit in recent years, and consolidation trends continue to increase since the financial crisis. Market share for small banks  fell since 2010. They now hold 22 percent of the commercial and industrial lending market, 8 percent in the individual lending market, and 2 percent in the small business lending market, according to a Council of Economic Advisors paper from last August.

Earlier this month, Private Bankshares was acquired the National Commerce Corporation, the parent company of National Bank of Commerce. The merger, the acquiree promised, will not affect the service they offer customers.