Smiling All The Way to (and from) the Bank

By Valerie Saturen

Sharon Fillingim’s puppy knows all about the benefits of local banking. On walks down Seattle’s Queen Anne Avenue, the puppy eagerly tugs on the leash when Sharon passes HomeStreet Bank, hoping for one of the treats stashed there.

A trip to this small community bank is a treat for customers, too. The name says it all: HomeStreet is a welcoming hub for many residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood. Instead of rushing through their transactions and leaving, they linger to chat over coffee. On Fridays, they can munch on one of the scrumptious cookies a customer bakes herself. According to branch manager Hossein Soleymani, she has never asked for reimbursement.

Hossein has been with HomeStreet for over a decade. “Small banks have more opportunities to help the community,” he says. “It’s not just a good idea to do—it’s something you must do as a neighbor.” He and other employees have put in numerous hours volunteering for local charities, including Queen Anne Helpline, which provides a variety of social services to neighbors in need. Hossein says the bank’s growth stems not from spending money on advertising, but from building community trust through word of mouth. “Our customers bring customers,” he says.

The cornerstone of this trust is customer service that goes the extra mile. Sharon owns the charming Le Reve bakery just down the street from the bank. When I tell her Hossein sent me, her face brightens. “He was just here today for lunch!” she exclaims. Since she opened her business account at HomeStreet, she has gotten to know him and the tellers, who have typically held their jobs for many years. If Sharon and her staff run out of change, they deliver it, a time-saving favor she can’t imagine many banks doing. It’s all part of the personal atmosphere that often distinguishes local banks from their huge Wall Street counterparts. “What impressed me most is that they greet each customer by name,” she says. “It makes you feel special.”

Ronda Miller says the same thing about her local bank, Umpqua. She’s the proud holder of the key to the second safety deposit box at its brand-new Queen Anne branch, which  opened its doors July 20th. For many years, she did her banking at Washington Mutual. But when WaMu was acquired by JPMorgan Chase amid the 2008 financial collapse, things began to change. “Whenever I walked in the door,” she says, “I felt pressured to buy something.” These high-pressure, often deceptive sales tactics were so bad that in June, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) fined the bank$27 million. Employees might approach Ronda more than once, delivering the same pitch without recognizing her face or recalling their previous encounter. While the impersonal service was off-putting, it wasn’t until Ronda had a problem with her credit card that she decided enough was enough. The bank gave her the run-around, passing her from one person to the next without resolving the issue. Ready for a change, she closed her account and opened a new one at Umpqua, where she says, “I’ve never felt like I was being sold a product.”

Ronda had read good things about Umpqua in a newspaper article about its Green Street lending program. Through the program, Umpqua offers homeowners affordable loans to make energy-saving improvements and install solar panels. The bank is part of a program called Solarize Seattle, a project of the nonprofit organization Northwest SEED. Its partners include the local solar company Sunergy Systems and Sustainable Queen Anne, a grassroots group promoting economic and environmental sustainability.

While other banks may have a business plan, Umpqua has a manifesto. In it, the bank says it’s “equal parts checking account and knitting club, commercial loan and local music store, IRA and Internet café.” Supporting the local economy is an obvious Umpqua priority. All the goodies customers enjoy, from daily coffee to free massages on special occasions, come from local businesses. To say hello, the new branch hand-delivered plants to the front porches of each of its new neighbors.

At Umpqua, Ronda receives all the same services she did at her Wall Street bank, but instead of fees and aggressive sales, she enjoys a personal atmosphere that puts a smile on her face. “When you go into Umpqua,” she says, “you talk to one person, not three. You walk up, and they help you with everything.”

Isn’t that the way it always should be? Recently, I heard about a campaign called Move Your Money, a large-scale movement to “invest in Main Street, not Wall Street” by switching to a local bank or credit union. I decided to do the same and moved my money to the Washington State Employees Credit Union. I’ve never looked back. Here’s how you can join me, Sharon, Ronda, and millions of other people in finding a bank that really knows how to make change:

Read full story…

Appeared in earthbongo on August 10, 2011.

Leave a Reply