Someone recently shared with me a rather detailed written recap of a meeting at a midsize community bank. And while I have never worked with that organization, the scene described seemed all too familiar.
Based off of the meeting notes, a senior manager of the bank in attendance was none-too-happy with the sales numbers. The sales results of a high percentage of branches were below their goals.
I'll go ahead and make the (sometimes dangerous) assumption that those goals were realistic and used at least some form of empirical data. It amazes me how often some institutions' branch goals are derived seemingly by "gut feel."
When that happens, folks who may be doing a pretty exceptional job in a weak market are looked at as slackers. Others, surrounded with higher growth opportunities, may actually be generating less than what reasonably should be expected.
What became pretty obvious as I read on was the senior manager was set in his beliefs that the reason the branches were missing their numbers was staff simply weren't asking for more business.
I started shaking my head when I read that he believed their products were competitive, and if people were actually being made aware of that fact, they'd be buying more. He firmly believed that if their branch folks simply sold their products harder, their numbers would logically go up.
There was no conversation about branch traffic, what the branches looked like, how they were being merchandized or current customer satisfaction scores. (It's possible they don't measure them.)
In fairness to this senior manager, maybe he wasn't thinking what I believe he was thinking. And, yes, it's possible that their branch folks are indeed asleep at the wheel and missing opportunities.
But I got the feeling that he shared a mindset I've seen quite a bit over the years. That mindset is that folks in departments away from the branches design and create "products."
And in managements' minds, the products they create are superior to, or at least as good as, the competitions' products. The frontline folks' jobs are to sell those superior-or-just-as-good-as products.
If the sales aren't there, it must be that those folks aren't doing their jobs properly. They therefore need to be better trained or incented or threatened or replaced to sell more products.
I recognize that's an oversimplification. And I also absolutely recognize that branches have been, are now and will continue to be sales generators for banks for the foreseeable future.
The point I often respectfully suggest to management is that to a branch-using customer, the branch isn't simply a seller of products. In fact, fewer and fewer customers even branch-dependent ones do their primary shopping for financial services in a branch. They research and "shop around" online.
To many customers, the branch, with the customer experience it provides, is the actual "product" the bank offers. If that experience makes customers feel respected and appreciated, they tend to be very happy with the product. When that's the case, they are more interested in continuing, and possibly expanding, their relationship with the company providing that experience.
When branch personnel begin to appear more focused on selling additional products to a branch customer than in professionally and cheerfully servicing the business they've already been given by that customer, a vicious cycle is created.The "product" is weakened in the customers' mind when interacting with a living, breathing banker inevitably involves fending off sales pitches. And, fairly or not, there are few professions less trusted than salespeople.
Is that another oversimplification? Sure.
But when evaluating the sales efforts of a staff, I'd concomitantly evaluate things like the marketing in branches. What can a customer learn while standing in a branch even if he never speaks a word to an employee? Does the environment in a branch make a customer feel like a valued guest or an unwelcomed visitor?
How proficient are the branches at solving problems quickly and courteously? An increasing percentage of a branch's foot traffic is primarily for problem resolution. Those who are the most proficient, helpful and courteous tend to improve customer satisfaction levels and strengthen loyalties.
Lower staffing levels may be arriving at some institutions a little sooner than their programs and systems are ready for it. Smaller teams generate less expense. But if not properly trained and equipped, they may generate less production, as well.
The pressure to sell more with less in our branches is real and here to stay.
But let's make sure we aren't damaging our most important products in the process.
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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