The Bank of America Business Advantage Small Business Community is dedicated to empowering small business owners with the expertise and tools they need to thrive. The newest addition to our resources is a new podcast series, brought to you by Bank of America and ForbesBooks.
The Heartbeat of Main Street delivers timely insights tailored to the needs of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Featuring a rotating line-up of small business experts and industry leaders – and covering a range of topics – each episode explores the trends that have an impact on revenue creation for small business owners.
The series is hosted by ForbesBooks, and more information can be accessed through a dedicated home page. New episodes will appear monthly on the Small Community. Be sure to check back often – so you don’t miss a beat.
Sharon Miller (intro): We are consultants. We are advisors. We're providing advice and guidance. We serve 3.1 million small business customers. There are 29 million small business owners in the United States, so we do see clients coast to coast. We can offer insights, which is why what we do is so important to the local economies because, when our small business owners are winning, so are our communities, and you can feel it as you go into these local markets.
Narrator: Welcome to the Heartbeat of Main Street with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.
Kate Delaney: Always a pleasure to have Sharon Miller on the show, Bank of America Head of Small Business. She's a managing director, so we have some great news here at ForbesBooks. We're very excited to be launching this radio and podcast partnership with you and Bank of America's small business. Sharon, what are the goals for these radio interviews, the podcast, and for all the people that have been listening?
Sharon: Well, Kate and Greg, first of all, thank you so much. This is an exciting partnership for us here at Bank of America, in particular small business. I hope that we can provide a forum for small business owners to have access to content about the economy, what's happening in the business world, trends, what are we seeing across the country because, as we know, small business is a very local business. What's happening in one community may be different than another community in a different area, so every small business is unique, and geography plays a big part of it or type of industry. We'll discuss all of that together. To me, it's just a very, very exciting topic.
Gregg Stebben: I'm glad you brought up so early in this discussion the idea of local businesses and how sometimes they're dealing with different things, and sometimes they're dealing with similar things. You must travel around the country a lot and talk to business owners around the country a lot in every corner of the country, and what kind of things do you hear them talking about today in 2018 that has you excited and that has them excited?
Sharon: We continue to hear from our small business owners that they're optimistic about the future. We take surveys twice a year at Bank of America to understand how our clients are feeling around their business prospects, so do they think their revenues will grow or are they coming down? Do they feel they're going to expand their business or are they going to let go?
Related Content: Spring 2018 Small Business Owner Report
All of these different items that small business owners contemplate over the course of a day, a week, a month, we ask them about that, so we continue to hear optimism in the air for our small business owners, and we just had the recent tax reforms pass. We know that there are some considerations for small business owners, and those are some of the things that they're talking about. How will I hire more employees? How can I get qualified employees? There's a war for talent out there, and small business owners are competing at every level, so that's something that I continue to hear.
The other thing is around technology and online and mobile and how do they make sure that they have the latest content, information, and access to information so that they can provide information for their customers but, more importantly, how do they use that to run their business and to gain efficiency. These are all the conversations that I'm having, no matter where I'm sitting, if it's in San Francisco, California or Tampa, Florida. These are similarities, and you do feel the optimism in the air.
Gregg: It's so interesting, Sharon, to hear you talk about, first of all, from where you're sitting as Bank of America Head of Small Business, and we're talking with Sharon Miller from Bank of America. It's so interesting to hear from where you're sitting you bringing up tech and mobile, in particular. First of all, I mean, we all know that the world is going to mobile, and it's going very fast.
Yet, as you were describing those conversations with small business people around the country, I realized that the more data is accessible to a small business person, especially the financial information, which is exactly where Bank of America and Bank of America small business comes into play. The more small business owners have access to that information, the better they are able to do all the things that make their business a success. Can you kind of walk us through the journey of Bank of America when it's come to having mobile access for their customers to their financial information?
Sharon Miller: You think about five years ago where we were building as a company access for clients to get on their computer, just online to go to bill pay, to go to online banking because people were sitting in front of their computer. Today, we think about mobile first, so it's still for the mobile because everyone has mobile in the palm of their hands, and this is how people prefer to bank today, so that's the consumer industry in general. I think about myself as a banker, but I also bank with Bank of America. I want to make sure that I have access to that and I don't have to be at home sitting in front of my computer.
I can just have my phone with me, log in, get on, understand what I have in my account, move money, pay bills and, now, we've launched Erica for our consumer clients and coming for small business, it’s a virtual assistant. Just like with your Amazon Alexa where you can ask, "What's the weather?" "What date is whatever event they're looking for?" You can find all this accessed information.
We now have Erica, which is a clever way of shortening Bank of America, so we just took the 'Bank of A" out and it's Erica, so it's, "Erica, pay my bill," "How am I doing on my budget?", "Should I invest money?" All this is going to be available for small business clients, as well, so this is on your mobile phone. I think that's the difference is, today, it's mobile first. We do build for online and to be able to be in front of your computer, but the world is becoming increasingly tightly knit, global. We're all there together, so I think that mobile is the way we've got to position going forward, and that's what our consumers are asking for.
Kate: Yeah, Sharon, you nailed it with this Erica. I'm sure people that are listening are now super drawn to this. Tell us a little bit more about that. I can imagine you probably had a think tank or you were flushing it out, or how did that all come about to get ahead of the curve?
Sharon: Artificial intelligence, it's gaining insights to behavior and being in front of our customers and giving them what they need, but they may not even know what they need. We're trying to anticipate their needs and trying to understand, you're spending a thousand dollars more each month than you make. Maybe we need to talk to a financial advisor about a budget. All of these things that we can understand of our customers' behavior because we understand what's happening in their account, and we want to help them. We want to be their financial partner and say, "Look, maybe it's time to get a checkup for ... You have two children. We can see, and you probably need to start a 529 plan for them." All these insights from a virtual assistant in the palm of your hand, it's incredible. I would've never guessed we'd have something like this available. It's the first of its kind in the industry and, quite frankly, it's what our customers want.
Today, this is what millennials are expecting. They want to wake up and say, "What's the weather?", all these things. My son has one of those Dots sitting on his bedside table. "What time is it?" "What's the weather?" "Is it going to rain today?" You can find this out just by talking. That's the same concept that we used for Erica.
Gregg: If I wasn't talking to you now, Sharon, I would be Googling Bank of America, Erica, to find out more about it. Can you tell us what stage it's in? Are there some who can see it today? Is it in beta or when we can expect to see it if it's not available?
Sharon: No, we had it available for all employees, and our employees were testing it. I was part of that test group so I, of course, kept getting every time I'd log into my mobile banking, I'd get this flag, and it'd say, "Do you want to use me?", Erica. Now, all of our customers are gaining access to this, so it's there for them. You just click on, "Hi, I'm Erica," and then it'll start interacting with you, so it's available for our customers.
It's something that, if you haven't checked it out already, it is so cool and just the most innovative thing that I think we've done when it comes to the artificial intelligence, launching it for our employees. It gets smarter as you use it. That's what artificial intelligence does. It can understand your behaviors as you're interacting so that it can anticipate your needs.
Kate: You can tell Gregg and I are just enthralled by this. This is amazing to hear about Erica, but one of the things that you also said is, you talked about the war for talent. That is real, that is big, and that's a problem that you know you're trying to solve and help people with, right?
Sharon: Absolutely. We hear this all the time that business owners, they want to expand. They want to replace, because you're going to have attrition. Even if you're not increasing the number of people you have in your company, someone's going to leave. They're going to go to a competitor. They're going to decide to go back to school. They're just going to do something else and make another choice, or maybe you have problems with that employee. You're going to have to replace. If you have ten employees, two leave in a year, you're still going to have to hire two people just to keep it ten.
In our business owner reports, what we hear from small business owners are that they're either going to maintain their existing staffing levels or they're going to increase it. With that being said, it would be unheard of for every small business to have no turnover, so we know we've got to hire. What we're doing is working with our Merrill Lynch partners to make sure we have our financial advisors out there that can help small business owners set up retirement plans, set up benefits because this would attract employees. It might differentiate a small business from another just because I have access to a 401K and the competitor down the street doesn't. People care about that today. Employees, it matters.
We want to work with small business owners, get them connected to the very best thinking on Wall Street around setting up retirement plans, setting up benefits. All these different considerations are really important in today's economy, and that's how we partner with our small business owners.
Kate: Sharon, I think you have one of the coolest jobs in the world, and I'm really curious what the path or journey is in the business that brought you to where you are today as the Head of Small Business at the Bank of America.
Sharon: I started my career with Bank of America 22 years ago as a financial advisor and have always served clients, whether it be helping them plan for retirement, maybe they're opening a small business, or they are sending a child to college. All of those issues and just life events happen to clients, so I've served clients my entire career. In my book of business, I did have business owners, many corporate clients, some small business owners, professionals, executives. That is how I started my career. I did go into management probably ten years ago, and I've moved to different areas of the country. This led me to where I am today.
Two years ago, I was asked to take over as the Head of Small Business when my predecessor retired, and at first I thought, "Wow! I'm not sure because I've never directly served just small business because my background has been more on the investment side and wealth management. As I got into this role, I realized that everything I had done up to this point prepared me for this because small business owners, they have the same issues. They have the same worries and concerns that every other person when you think about professionals.
They're human beings. They're people. They are worried about, "What about my home. What about my family? How am I going to take care of my health? How am I going to pay my employees?" All these items, these are just issues that small business owners have every single day, and that's what we're here to do. We're here to partner with them to solve those items and to help them make their vision a reality.
It is an exciting area. It's an exciting business, and I get so energized and just proud when I sit down with our small business owners and I realize that, because of our partnership, we have been able to help them realize their goals, whether it's expanding their business or it's opening a new practice, all these things. These are ways we help at Bank of America.
Gregg: You know what's interesting to me, Sharon, in what you just said is, you used the word “partner” and “partnership” a few times. Of course, that was really what you were doing in your early days as a financial advisor and wealth advisor, and it's what you continue to do today, but I think when you're a small business owner, knowing that your bank considers you to be a partner with them and having a partnership and, frankly, one of the most essential parts of a business, which is the financial part of a business because it touches everything else.
You must find that, when you and your team sit down and talk with your small business clients that they are so thrilled to have access to you and the value of the things you're learning as a team from dealing with businesses all across the country. You must just have story after story after story of where you can share with business owners things you've all learned as a team because you're dealing with so many business owners that you're, in a sense, almost serving like consultants who can help them when they really need the help the most.
Sharon: That's right. I mean, that's exactly how I view our role. We are consultants. We are advisors. We're providing advice and guidance, and not just for their small business, but their personal, as well. As a small business owner, they're wearing so many hats, so they're the CEO of their business, they're the CFO. They could be the janitor if they need to be. They're serving every role. I mean, whatever it is that needs to be done, they're going to get done, and they put their heart and soul into their business. To me, that's where we come in and say, “You know what? We serve 3.1 million small business customers across the United States. There are 29 small business owners in the United States generally.
At Bank of America, we're serving 3.1 million of them,” so we do see clients from coast to coast. We can offer insights and, sometimes, that is, "You know what? You may need to adjust the way you're doing X,Y,Z, this or that, so that we can get you access to more capital," or, "Maybe it's not a good idea to expand today. You need to get these things in order first." All these conversations are what our bankers are having across the country every single day across the desk, which is why what we do is so important to the local economies because, when our small business owners are winning, so are our communities, and you can feel it as you go into these local markets.
Kate: Perfect segue into this next question. Sharon, you're a mommy of a couple of kids, and you're the Head of Small Business for Bank of America, big job. I've talked to a lot of women about this, is work/life balance. Is there such a thing?
Sharon: I don't think so. I mean, really, it's ... I feel it every day. You strive to have that balance and, sometimes, you're more tilted toward your home and your family and your children because you know when you've got to be there. You might have to miss a meeting flying to travel somewhere. I mean, I've had that happen before where I've had to go to my boss and say, "You know what? My daughter has a play. I just can't travel this date because, in ten years, no one's going to remember if I was at that meeting, but my daughter's going to remember." That's the reality.
You can't make everyone happy a hundred percent of the time. You just have to be true to yourself, and no one is perfect every single day, and that's what we strive to do, to be better and better every single day and be there and provide as much balance and focus and be the best self you can be because when you're doing that, you'll be able to give to others.
Gregg: We're talking with Sharon Miller. She's the Head of Small Business at Bank of America. Sharon, you mentioned, I think you said your son has an Amazon Dot on his nightstand.
Sharon: Echo or whatever he got.
Gregg: If we could be that Amazon Dot or that Amazon Echo and we could hear the kinds of conversations you have with your kids about money, I'm really curious about how that works in your house because you spend your whole day helping people understand the power of money, and then you go home, and how do you translate the lessons from what you've learned and seen at work into lessons for your own family?
Sharon: That's such a great question. I have two kids. My son is 11. My daughter is 9, and my daughter, Lauren, she saves every penny she's ever had. She won't spend anything, and she's just very different. My son, 11, if he's got $40 in his side drawer, he wants to go spend that today. It's just so interesting to talk to both of them about the value of money and to say, "You know, Ryan, you've got to save. You've got to put some aside. Just because you got your allowance doesn't mean you have to just go buy something because you want it. You need to save and put money aside," whereas my daughter, she won't buy anything. It's so interesting. Kids are kids, right?
You just have to have those different conversations and teach them different lessons, but the reality is, we have to instill in our kids a sense of value to money. You just don't have these things. They just don't appear. You have to work. You have to focus and save and, sometimes, you can't get what you want today just because you want it. You need to put some money aside, so those are all the life lessons and just general conversations that I'm having with my kids. Again, just like work/life balance, some days are better than others, and that's with kids. We just try to instill the right values so they can make the right choices as they grow up to become young adults.
Kate: Do you talk to them about entrepreneurship because, especially their age group, I think you're going to see more and more of that.
Sharon: Absolutely. I have in my front yard on Saturdays, many times my daughter has some friends over and they'll do art work, and they'll put it in the front yard. In fact, my neighborhood has this stand to sell lemonade. They're going to the neighbors, knocking on the door, "Do you want this painting?" They're putting it on canvas. They're selling it. You know what's so amazing, and I just think this is just such the world that our children are growing up in, which is so good, they come in.
In fact, last weekend, they came in. They had made $38, and it was three girls, and they had been selling cookies and lemonade and some paintings in the front yard. Of course, I probably paid ten of that just walking by, and then maybe their grandfather gave them another five and then the two neighbors, but either way, they raised it and they put it in an envelope and they said, "This is for the Humane Society. We want to go down and give that to them," which is just wow!
That just makes you smile and say, "That is amazing!" They're giving back and just the way they're thinking, that just makes you proud as a mother and, just as a human being, it's so nice to watch children and how they're so involved, but entrepreneurism, yes. They can do anything. That's what I always tell my kids, "You can do anything you want to do. If you put your mind to it, you work hard, and you dedicate yourself to it, you can do anything, so you need to follow your passion and follow your dream."
Kate: Perfect place to end this. Sharon Miller, Bank of America Head of Small Business. This is why I love these conversations.
Greg: I want Sharon to be my mom!
Kate: I know! Me, too!
Sharon: Tell that to my kids. Tell that to my kids.
Gregg: Kate and I do not roll our eyes.
Sharon: Exactly! That's what I was thinking. I got the eye roll this morning. Again, some days are better than others.
Kate: I love it! Sharon, thank you so much.
Sharon: This is great. I appreciate it, and this is going to be really, really ... I think it's going to be a great partnership.