I sometimes half-joke that most of the bank sales training courses I encounter rely on the assumption that customers are totally in the dark about bank products and services. And to be fair, that was a safe bet for decades. Only a fraction of folks walking in off the street had a passing knowledge of the products their bank offered. And an even smaller percentage had any clue about the competition's products and pricing.

When I was a branch manager eons ago, you knew that comparison shopping was a relative term. If you said a rate or fee was competitive, or that certain features or limitations were standard, well, hey, you were the authority.

A recent Wall Street Journal column by Miguel Bustillo and Ann Zimmerman explained how smartphones have become one of the most disruptive technologies retailers have ever confronted. For months, my wife has been singing the praises of the various shopping applications she has begun using.

A growing number of shoppers are now using their cellphones to scan bar codes on products on store shelves. If a bar code isn't available, some apps require only a picture of an item to conduct a search. These applications instantly scan the Internet for that product. Within seconds, a list of other companies offering the product, maps to their store locations and the prices they offer pop up. Online retailers are also included, along with their shipping costs (which often are free).

So retailers are now faced with the increasing likelihood that shoppers are standing in their stores physically evaluating products and then buying those products from a competitor. And they can and are doing this while still standing in their store. (Talk about adding insult to injury!)

Direct selling of products through cellphones is projected to be a $50 billion channel within four years. Sales of products researched on cellphones will be exponentially higher. The rules of shopping are indeed changing for all of us. This came home to me recently while car shopping. My wife spent more time finding information on her Droid phone than listening to the salesman. She also corrected some of the information he gave us and even found out how many similar vehicles competitors had on their lots.

The point I make to bankers is that customers may not necessarily shop for our products in the identical ways they shop for most retail products. But when they do interact with us, they now expect our teams to display a higher level of product knowledge than at any time in the past. Team members must be expert on their own products and near-expert on the competition's.

And why shouldn't customers expect this? Customers are able to sit in their own kitchens, automobiles or our branch lobbies and pull up the data themselves. More than ever they expect us to beat or match any deal they find elsewhere or be able to explain (sell them on) why they should accept a different proposition from us.

And they can shop around and fact-check you while sitting across the desk from you. It's funny that there was a time when checking the accuracy of a person's statements or comparing him to his competitors — right in front of him — was considered rude. It's quickly becoming par for the course, as is being able to share your thoughts and experiences with friends, acquaintances and the world with a few keystrokes.

If nothing else, proliferating and improving technology forces us to focus even more on what our value propositions to customers actually are. At some level, price will obviously always be a factor. But if a bank allows its value proposition to be defined entirely by price, it will always be at the mercy of the most aggressive or desperate competitors.

The most important point I try to make to groups when discussing this topic is that technology doesn't slant the playing field. It levels it. In our industry, technology and pricing are actually the simplest things to copy. Over time, they do not differentiate.

Many customer-contact folks fear that their jobs are being made irrelevant. They believe that customers will soon prefer not to interact with people at all. I'd suggest that customers prefer not interacting with people who add nothing positive to the experience.

In an increasingly commoditized and transparent industry, personal interactions and service differentiates more than ever.

How will your team differentiate you this year?