When California Federal Bank personal banker Valerie A. Smedley started questioning customers to see if they had any unfilled banking needs, she found the experience a bit unnerving.

"In the beginning, this is like an intrusion on people," she said during a recent sales training session in San Francisco. "I felt very uncomfortable."

Thousands of branch employees at Cal Fed, a subsidiary of $55.8 billion-asset Golden State Bancorp, are facing challenges as they train to become more sales-oriented. The education is basically a move to alter the fundamental philosophy of the company, said Adele A. Carter, California Federal's vice president of training and development.

"This has everything to do with changing human behavior and harnessing fundamental communication skills," she said.

The nation's second largest thrift company - created by last year's merger of First Nationwide Holdings, the parent of Cal Fed, with Golden State Bancorp, the parent of Glendale Federal Bank - was faced with a workforce that had disparate levels of sales training and generally viewed sales and services as separate pieces of the customer relationship, Ms. Carter said.

"Our challenge is to not make a delineation between sales and service, but to instead drive the customer's experience," she said.

Ms. Carter said she expects to be done training about 1,400 managers and personal bankers by yearend. Tellers will be trained early next year.

The payoff could be enormous, according to Scott A. Kisting, California Federal's director of retail banking. In a recent presentation to advertising agencies, which was videotaped and played for trainees, Mr. Kisting said that as much as 85% of the thrift company's sales occur when a potential customer walks into a branch.

In addition, 80% to 85% of the products or services a customer purchases are sold within the first month of the relationship.

"People who enter the bank are predisposed to buy," Mr. Kisting said. "The question is, what do you do with this incredible opportunity?"

The thrift still has a way to go. California Federal's cross-sell ratio is roughly 2.3 products per household, Mr. Kisting said. The potential for a middle-income household is about 14 products, he added.

Improving cross-sell ratios at thrift companies is especially challenging, because for many years they offered only one product: residential mortgages. Deeply engrained behaviors must be altered, said Alice Wilmarth, a project manager who leads training sessions for California Federal.

"We're not order-takers anymore," she told a classroom of personal bankers. "We have to start anticipating future needs."

To get to that point, trainees are instructed on how to greet customers, how to take notes without putting off a client, effective listening and questioning, making quality recommendations, and properly handling a customer's objections.

Another part of the new emphasis is a "customer relationship builder" form that the personal banker fills while speaking with potential customers. The form includes questions such as: "Are you planning any major purchases in the next year?" and "Have you completed any financial planning for the future?"

Even this is a challenging part of the sales process, because customers may feel uncomfortable with a banker taking notes as they speak. In other cases the banker may risk losing the sale because a customer is in a hurry.

In addition to offering staff members a greater challenge, California Federal is also working on rewarding employees who put their sales and customer service training to work, Ms. Carter said. An incentive program, which includes bonuses, is being drawn up and will be offered sometime next year.

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