Have you ever tried to return an item to Target on December 26? The customer service lines are thick with aggrieved people shuffling through queue lines that dead end at a store clerk who has no motive to expedite your transaction and who’s likely not empowered to nudge your experience toward positive. This is the value proposition of the big-box store: Price is driven by scale so any hands-on service requires a wait.

Being queued in snake-like formation, albeit digitally, is exactly the experience millions of small business owners came up against as they sought to get access to some of the $349 billion earmarked for Round One of the Paycheck Protection Program. Woe to the large subset of them who thought the path to a PPP loan required them to queue up at the financial services equivalent of Target. 

There isn’t a regular reader of this magazine who is surprised by the tales of indifference related by business owners who turned to Bank of America or Citigroup or JPMorgan Chase or Wells Fargo, institutions that failed many of them in their hour of greatest need. The subset of financial institutions that didn’t fail but rose to the challenge of serving — sometimes saving — small businesses is, of course, community banks. I’m not surprised in the least. But plenty of people were, including those who write for east coast media. 

The Washington Post was first to celebrate community bank moxie. It chronicled how bankers at Union Bank & Trust in Lincoln, Neb., working mostly from home and late into the night, out-hustled the big banks to build an internal infrastructure to process and submit loans to the SBA’s E-Tran system. Employees from non-lending departments at the bank reached out “right and left” to offer their help, the WaPo story related. In Round One, Union Bank processed more PPP loans than any other institution in the country except one. 

Two weeks later, the Wall Street Journal chronicled the determined actions of Fargo-based Choice Financial, whose bankers conducted outreach to small business customers alerting them to the availability of loan assistance and helping them apply.

All over my social media feeds, I’ve seen chronicles of outsized efforts by dozens of other community banks to process PPP loans. I congratulate all of these banking teams for stepping up to help customers and non-customers alike. Millions of business owners are breathing a bit easier because of your efforts — kudos to you and your teams.

Here’s the thing. Toward the end of this month, those same businesses are going to be queueing up at your bank looking for the loan forgiveness their government promised them. I trust you’re already talking amongst yourselves about how to replicate the successes you enjoyed on the front end of this program as business owners begin to reach back out. If you thought they were anxious before, think about what it might be like for them now, all lined in a row, their business prospects probably not much better than eight weeks earlier. What will you do to make their wait conclude on a positive note?

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