The real threat to successful banking in the 21st century is not rapid technological change, high interest rates, delinquent loans or whether computers embrace the year 2000 before the year 2000. The question is whether banking becomes customer-centric or degrades products and services into anonymous commodities.

Leaders in the next century will succeed by addressing the hearts and minds of their customers, interweaving value with substance and honoring the reality of customer satisfaction. If products continue to "flatten," then price and short-term promotions rule.

The results are producing market disarray as customers nervously "hit and run" from gimmick to gimmick. That unhappy bearing undermines what banks do best: create trust in relationships. What customers want is value and substance. It's more than good customer service and how the phone is answered, though these matter. Customers stay in place when they're content, whether relating to mortgage payments, business loans, checking accounts, trusts or late credit card payments.

As Walter Wriston, former Citibank CEO, testifies, "intellectual capital" has displaced other traditional assets and wealth (property, money, inventory) as the sparkplug to growth in the exploding Information Age. In short, thinking like a retailer must be taken to a new "intellectual" realm.

What makes customers stay are the same qualities, when absent, that drive them away: value, substance with true benefits and trust. Value is never price alone; that produces the world of no-name paper towels, soda pop or breakfast cereals.

What happens when everything is price-driven? The next lowest price wins, causing a descending spiral that squeezes profit, service and eventually quality. This is not to say that price isn't important, that innovative marketing isn't mandatory, or that productivity does not depend on streamlining. But only product benefits to the customer drive long-term triumphs.

Reflex commodity thinking now makes banking "flat," without feature, density or depth, giving many product mixes all the weight of a one- dimensional plane. Customers surf across planes with ease. "Flat" appeals momentarily to the surface and the eye, driving momentary, erratic impulses.

In contrast, the worth and features of "roundness" differentiates products. Layers of benefits and appeal define "hills and valleys" that make products stand out. True product depth increases surface friction, thus dissuading surfing. When products are textured, rounded and supported, positive momentum encircles and comforts customers, who stop searching for the next ploy.

Further, customers-who confirm what they need and want-feel empowered, leading up the ladder to that final payoff: contentment. "Roundness of substance" is what distinguishes a company's products and identity- redefining "business" as turning the asset of a loyal customer base into sustainable profits.

People will pay for services they need and support companies whose values (perceived and real) are similar to theirs. Customers must be more than numbers. They should be viewed as potential partners and members of committed families. Technology is the critical link in the chain, as long as care is taken so that its nameless, impersonal dimensions never displace your company's image. Focus on product impact clarifies how banks win customers by applying the latest, most appropriate information-analytics (database target marketing and scoring, data mining, warehousing and more.) Top customer service depends on technology usage-just be vigilant about keeping a human face on your presentations.

Successful banks can learn from top consumer-based retailers, especially how they track customer satisfaction with advanced modeling that targets, scores, and predicts behavior. With access and control of data unheard of five years ago, technology provides the delivery method to get value to the right customer in the right manner with the right face.

Then, value-laden products, driven by the engines of intellectual capital, technology and customer orientation, will project your company's vision and underlying identity. When that happens, customers naturally move beyond the surface "flatness" and toward "roundness"-establishing predictable, profitable customer relations and commerce.

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