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Community banks have always had a customer-centric philosophy.

Community banks have always had a customer-centric philosophy. But putting that into practice with customer-centric systems hasn't always been the easiest thing to do. "The technology has been out there for longer than we could afford it," says Lee Symcox, president and CEO of First Fidelity Bank N.A. (Oklahoma City, $625 million in assets). "It's finally affordable for a community bank."

As a result, from a customer service standpoint, even a relatively small community bank can stand toe-to-toe with larger rivals having larger IT budgets and resources. Not only can a smaller financial institution adopt comparable CRM as a larger player, but it can let someone else manage the integration issues involved.

In October 2000, First Fidelity consolidated all of its internal systems, including its teller machines, platform solutions, voice response system and online banking platform, with a single vendor, Jack Henry & Associates (Monett, Mo.). In mid-2003, the bank added Jack Henry's Synapsys CRM system to the mix and has already been able to discern tangible results from doing so.

To begin, the bank now has the ability to keep track of all customer contacts and problem resolutions throughout its 19-branch network. "We used to run into problems all the time, particularly with as many branches as we have," Symcox says. Specifically, if a bank employee at one branch began to resolve a customer service issue, the customer would often inquire as to the status at another branch. "Tracking down the person that was dealing with the issue was often a challenge," Symcox notes. Now, branch employees can access a "nice narrative of what the issue has been and who has dealt with the problem," he explains.

Furthermore, having a complete picture of its customer relationships allows the bank to stave off service issues before they occur. "Each branch may experience one or two incidents - and by itself it doesn't become apparent it's a pattern," Symcox says. "But by tracking it all in one area, you can very easily identify patterns that are breakdowns in our process, or breakdowns in our people, and we have used it many times for that purpose."

Efficient customer service has added importance for community banks, which differentiate themselves on quality of service. While technology allows self-service and personalization to a greater extent than ever before, customers still rely upon branch bankers and call centers when something goes wrong. "Where you can make a difference is that situation where either they can't access what they need through the Internet, or it's just not available, or if they have a problem," Symcox says. "That's where a person gets involved, and that makes a difference."

Of course, there are limits to what technology can do to resolve a customer service issue. That's why First Fidelity has empowered its employees to calm its simmering customers with movie tickets and restaurant vouchers. That's a judgment call that computers can't yet make, although it's something that a CRM system can certainly track. Indeed, the system issues weekly management reports on service events as they correlate to client retention metrics.

Thus, the return on investment for First Fidelity's CRM system isn't simply measured on today's bottom line. Instead, it's an integral part of developing customer loyalty.

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Wescom Credit Union (Pasadena) - Collecting and disseminating customer satisfaction data across the firm, for benchmarking and immediate follow-up.

Scotiabank (Toronto) - Driving compensation and sales approaches using an integrated view of its business customers.

Security National Bank (Laurel, Neb.) - Setting pricing strategy and service levels using customer profitability metrics.

Pacific Capital Bancorp (Santa Barbara) - Making data available anywhere it's needed in the firm with minimal effort, using a data virtualization layer.

Northstar Financial (Bad Axe, Mich.) - Building a de novo bank network from the ground up, based on customer-centricity.

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