Small business owners in the United States are expressing increasing dissatisfaction with their financial institutions—so much so that a substantial number may switch banks in the next two years.

 That’s the conclusion of a report released Monday from the Boston-based research firm, Aite Group. The decline is especially severe among small business owners who are customers of the largest banks, the Aite report said. The Big Four banks — Bank of America [BAC], Citigroup [C], JPMorgan Chase [JPM] and Wells Fargo [WFC]—“were able to exceed expectations of 58% of their small business customers with the usability of their online banking solutions in 2007 while they were only to do so 15% in 2009. Sharp decreases were also seen in their ability to understand customer needs and recommend products,” the report said.

Among small business owners that were “disappointed” with their financial institutions, 31% stated they “definitely” or “probably will” switch to a new one over the next two years. And, 38% of disappointed customers do their banking with Big Four banks, while 41% bank primarily with regional banks.

The bigger and regional “banks doesn’t understand small business owners’ needs and haven’t been able to suggest products that they are looking for,” said Christine Barry, research director at Aite and author of the report. Only 22% of clients are “extremely satisfied” with their bank’s understanding of their business needs, the report stated.

Barry added that the institutions “are not providing clients with the online tools they are looking for.” The report stated that “some banks, especially the largest ones, offer sophisticated online capabilities to their small business customers without bundling them to best fit the specific needs of customer sub-segments. As such, they run the risk of offering too much, or unnecessarily complicating the online experience for less sophisticated users.” The report said, “Larger-bank customers are more likely to be pushed through automated systems and call centers with wait times.”

Barry said one of the most significant challenges facing small businesses is how manage their cash. Whether it’s forecasting, real time balance sheets or even the ability to send invoices to customers, “they wish their banks would offer this,” she said. 

Another area in which small business owners grew more dissatisfied with larger institutions is lending. “The financial crisis and current recession have led many institutions—especially the largest ones —to tighten their credit policies, making it especially difficult for some small businesses to access funding.”

The Aite report comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in which he proposed several initiatives to help the small business community. Among those proposals were: giving $30 billion of the money Wall Street banks have repaid to help community banks give small businesses the credit they need to stay afloat; a new small business tax credit that would enable hiring and increased wages and the elimination of all capital gains taxes on small business investment.

Banks need to improve the relationship manager model with small business owners in order to better ascertain their needs, the report concluded. Banks also should increase the institution’s presence on social networking sites. The Aite report findings were based on a survey of 283 owners and executives of small businesses in the United States and conducted last July.


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