George Martinez took a couple of clients to lunch last month and ordered the chef’s special, mahi-mahi. When he asked for some vegetables other than potatoes, the waiter said he couldn’t substitute side dishes with the special.

“I ended up having the red snapper, and I probably won’t go back to that restaurant again,” said Mr. Martinez, chairman of $2 billion-asset Sterling Bancshares in Houston. The moral, he said: Customers do not like hearing “no” for an answer, so avoid saying it. Of course, Mr. Martinez must pay more than lip service to that philosophy to keep his own customers satisfied. Sterling’s 24 branches are full of senior-level employees who are there to give customers quick, consistent responses to their loan applications.

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