Feel like just a number at your bank? You might want to take some of your business to a niche bank. "As a niche bank, we have fewer customers, but they're all well-known to us," says Jay Fritz, CEO and chairman of Royal American Bank in Inverness, Illinois, which focuses on family-owned manufacturing firms in the wholesale and service industries. Also, because niche bankers know the particular industries they serve well, they're more comfortable riding out a firm's inevitable economic dips, Fritz points out.

Niche banks typically don't mass-advertise. Instead, they connect with trade associations, advertise in industry publications and rely on customer referrals, says Fritz. He offers these tips for looking for a niche bank:

  • Evaluate the bankers' experience. Officers should be business bankers with at least three to five years' experience.

  • Check loan turnaround times. "If [a niche bank has] a stable office staff, they've taken time to get to know customers and their businesses and should respond quickly," he says.

If there's a downside to choosing a niche bank, it's size. They tend to be smaller and local or regional, which means customers could outgrow the bank. And if you think the rash of mergers and acquisitions have rendered niche banks an endangered species, think again. Fritz believes as larger banks get more efficient at serving broad-based markets, this will clear a path for tightly focused smaller institutions that can spend more time on customers than on bank-buying.