Through the years, my most repeated sales-culture mantra to banking groups has been "Make a Friend, Make a Customer." As soon as I say that, I almost always see folks nodding their heads in agreement, and I also know that most of the folks nodding their heads miss my point.

Having played many word-association games with groups of bankers, the responses given for the word "salesman" are both incredibly consistent and incredibly negative.

For this reason, I long ago began trying to find more comfortable illustrations to explain productive relationship building and sales techniques. The one that folks always seem to connect with most is "make a friend."

The mistake many people make when they hear "make a friend" is to think that it simply means "being friendly." They're not synonymous.

I like to point out to folks that, if you looked at a stack-ranking of their branches by performance and visited their lowest-quartile branches, you would be likely to find as many friendly folks there as you would in their top quartile. Most people in business will indeed act friendly if you actually make them interact with you.

But "being friendly" is usually a reactive gesture. It happens when a customer comes to you. Making friends is proactive. Making friends requires us to actually get out and engage people.

One of my main arguments to sales culture "purists" is that, if folks are truly focused on making new friends, they necessarily will be doing most of what a healthy sales and service culture requires in the first place.

Some folks are quick to think, "Well, our sales techniques make our people actively seek out customers." The distinction I like to make is that many of the sales approaches I've experienced through the years are bank-focused. It is abundantly clear when a banker engages a potential customer that the banker has an agenda in mind — namely, his.

And there's a simple term for a person who always has his own agenda when talking to you. He's called a salesman.

I like to show folks by role-playing what "making a friend" would look like if we followed most sales training approaches: We would walk up to a stranger and begin telling him all about ourselves. We may pause to ask him to tell us a little about his current friends but only so that we can compare, contrast and belittle his current friends in order to make us look better.

Then, having proved our case, we would expect our new friend to swap phone numbers and e-mail addresses with us.

But in the real world people respond to people who show interest in them and actually listen to them. The old saying "You'll make more friends in a week by showing interest in others than in a year of trying to get others interested in you" is accurate.

I first started using this approach years ago with in-store bankers. Many of them were (rightly) put off by the prospect of trying to sell bank products to customers who were not remotely interested in discussing banking products at that time or place.

Encouraging them to focus instead on making friends got them to change their behaviors from a bank-focused, "let's talk about me" approach to a customer-focused approach. And something amazing almost always began happening when folks stopped selling and began making friends. Their sales numbers went up.

This should not be a shock. Bankers became more relaxed, less pushy (desperate) and actually had more conversations. When the number and quality of conversations with existing and potential customers go up, good things follow.

Now, I don't suggest that any bank scrap its sales training for a "making friends" campaign. But I do believe that regular conversations about how many new friends our teams have made — say, during the past month — can help us maintain a proper focus.

How many new folks have you met? What have you learned about your new acquaintances? What favors or nice gestures have you done for folks who were not expecting them? How or when are you going to check in with your new friends?

Has anyone visited a new business this month, if only to welcome the owner and wish him or her well?

I've half-kidded with folks that you may be able to give me good reasons why you didn't find any new customers this week. But I'm going to have a harder time accepting that you couldn't make a few new friends.

People trust their friends. They're the first people they turn to when they need help or advice. They seek to reciprocate the nice gestures and good will they receive from friends.

Call me nuts, but in an increasingly competitive and commoditized industry, "friend" seems like a strategically good place to be.

What will you and your team do to make friends (and future customers) this week?

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