March 2021 | Point of View

Bank strategies for growth in small business

There’s never been a more opportune time to design and deploy a distinct operating model dedicated to efficient and effective service to the small business segment

Bank strategies for growth in small business

The events of the past year have profoundly impacted the manner in which small businesses deliver goods and services to customers. Strong, creative, and nimble small businesses have fought hard to survive despite pandemic-induced supply chain and market disruptions. To meet payroll, small businesses have turned to Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, in some cases developing new relationships with digitally enabled financial institutions capable of fulfilling PPP loan applications in their moment of greatest need. When government support to the segment inevitably ends, small businesses will be left to re-evaluate who they can partner with going forward to be a consistent source of financial capital and other essential products.

For financial institutions presented with this opportunity to capture and retain new customers, the challenge is the historic struggle to fully meet the needs of small businesses profitably while delivering products designed for commercial customers at a scale more similar to retail banking.  

Poorly conceived product offerings, mismatched operating models, and disconnected legacy technologies have all served to make small business delivery inefficient. Throw in credit policy, procedures, and pricing strategies designed for large commercial customers and it’s no wonder that many financial institutions consider serving small businesses a losing proposition.  

Against this backdrop, innovative financial institutions will recognize the opportunity to profitably service the small business segment and capture increased market share created by the convergence of three key market factors:

  1. The pandemic-caused widespread disruption in business relationships
  2. The related shift to digital product and service delivery
  3. The long-developing increase in availability of critical configurable technologies

The key to capitalizing on the convergence of these factors is a commitment to a digitally enabled small business delivery model.  

By exclusively focusing on this historically underappreciated and underserved segment, early movers are realizing the opportunity to create a profit center where previously there were thin margins and limited upside.  

How we got here: What’s driving the opportunity to focus on small business delivery service

A combination of increased digital expectations, automatability of low-value activities, improved integration of required systems, and high availability of potential customers all indicate an emerging opportunity for financial institutions to simultaneously provide small business customers with exactly the service they are looking for, while aggressively managing down the cost to serve.  

Advancing customer expectations

The small business segment is undergoing rapid generational turnover as waves of owners are retiring and handing off to digitally-native Millennials and Generation Z leaders that expect instant, convenient self-service options. This effect was compounded by the rapid digitally-enabled delivery of large sums of PPP loans that created new expectations of what is possible in small business credit delivery for both customers and banks.

Accessible application, interaction, and fulfillment capabilities

Many of the processes that historically made serving small businesses cumbersome and costly can now be fully automated, including application processing, CIP/KYC, approvals, loan and credit card fulfillment, streamlined monitoring, and renewals.

Maturation of technologies that can form an efficient, connected application architecture

Best-in-class small business customer engagement applications can now be seamlessly combined with shared technologies, data and analytics tools, and legacy Core Accounting Systems: 

Digital competitors continue to emerge

Larger financial institutions including Capital One, Chase and American Express that have invested heavily in digital for decades are leveraging their digital capabilities down-market to efficiently serve core loan and card offerings to the small business segment. At the same time, emerging and established FinTechs such as Fundbox and BlueVine are disrupting the space with digitally-native funding options. Institutions without digital capabilities may not be able to fully compensate simply by leaning heavily on historic strengths in high-touch community relationships.

Widespread disruption in business relationships

The pandemic has dramatically changed how we do business as a society and has created a high degree of churn in the market as customers find new providers that best meet their needs. This effect has been keenly felt in small business banking as thousands of small businesses sought new banking providers to rapidly secure limited PPP funding.

Achieve small business banking success by analyzing speed, efficiency, and satisfaction

Building a focused small business segment supported by dedicated resources, an optimized end-to-end process, and right-sized technology can move the needle not only with bottom line profitability but also by providing greatly improved customer experience. Three key metrics that a thoughtfully constructed Small Business segment can enhance include:

Speed to market: Reduced time to funding

Commercial lending origination processes designed to treat every business loan request the same needlessly slow the decisioning, closing, and funding processes for small business loans and cards. Institutions that develop operating models with customer-focused technologies can develop a credit delivery process aligning risk with speed. The result is a differentiated customer experience that efficiently assesses risk and right-sizes the effort needed to serve the small business segment.

Operational efficiency: Increased portfolio size per FTE

The cost to originate and service loans and cards for small business customers can be prohibitive in what is a narrow margin business segment. Applying customer service and loan monitoring techniques appropriate for larger businesses makes achieving profitability difficult. A Small Business segment supported by the right automation technology can efficiently manage an exponentially larger portfolio significantly reducing the cost of service. 

Customer satisfaction: Improved Net Promoter Scores

There is significant customer experience upside in the rapid delivery of small business products via bankers that are focused exclusively on the segment. Small businesses appreciate streamlined processes that allow them to quickly obtain information, quotes, and ultimately capital to support their business needs. These businesses recognize and appreciate a financial partner that values their time, addresses their specific needs, and meets them where they are digitally.

Growing profitable small business banking relationships requires a defined focus   

Applying sales strategies, operating models, and supporting technologies designed for middler market customers to the small business segment is not a profitable strategy. Banks must focus on the unique needs of small businesses and design an end-to-end service delivery model tailored to their needs.  

Implement an operating model focused exclusively on the small business segment

Successful delivery of products and services tailored to small businesses requires a thoughtfully designed operating model streamlined to fit the needs of customers in this segment. This model requires bankers that understand small businesses and how to orchestrate the right mixture of high touch advisory engagement with no-touch automation and speed. These team members will need to be driven by an appropriate incentive structure designed to optimize behavior and supported by technology providing the automated digital delivery of exceptional customer experiences.

Define products and product bundles with small business customer needs in mind

Lending, deposit, card, cash management, payment, and treasury services should be specifically designed and bundled to meet the unique needs of small businesses without overcomplicating setup or pricing.

The customer engagement model must meet small businesses where they are

Small Business Customers expect to be able to interact and transact through multiple channels (online banking, mobile banking, portals, digital payments, chat, etc.), and will seek out a bank that can meet them on the go while also being available to sit across the table and think through critical credit decisions.

Differentiate delivery to strategic target segments

To maximize digital investments in this segment, tailor solutions to niche markets that are of strategic importance to the institution. Striving to “be everything to everyone” risks commoditizing the small business offering back into a low-profitability space rife with competitors. Successful institutions will find their own unique value proposition and leverage digital investments both offensively and defensively to hold and expand their market position.

Efficient product fulfillment must complement digitized application processes

The promise of online applications must be backed up by technology that ensures requested products and services can be fulfilled in a streamlined, efficient manner.

Leverage a digitally enabled enterprise-wide architecture to serve the small business segment

Small Business focused applications should be seamlessly integrated with core enterprise applications to drive efficiency, leverage data and reduce manual work.

Policies and procedures must align with technology to enable efficiencies

Risk adjusted policies should be established to automate approvals, streamline monitoring (covenants, tracking items, reviews, renewals, modifications, etc.), and ease the compliance burden on Small Business Segment relationships.


The time is now. Small businesses that survive the pandemic will have endured a stress test unlike any conceived by the most conservative underwriting scenarios. With their business models fully tested, small businesses will be looking for reliable financial partners with products, services, and delivery models aligned to their needs.

The time is now to design the experience, build the operating model, and align the technology, process, and team structures needed to focus exclusively on the small business segment. 

The demand is substantial, the digital tools are available, and the opportunity to profitably serve small businesses has never been more real.

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