While addressing a bank's statewide manager meeting recently, I found myself joking about the kind of phone calls that managers aren't always thrilled to receive. Kidding a bit, I mimicked with a whiny voice the line I've heard hundreds of times (and used myself back in my branch manager days): "These guys have no idea about what it takes to run this branch! The only thing they care about is how many accounts we opened this week!"

The volume of laughter and number of people good-naturedly pointing at their bosses reminded me that there seem to be communication gaps between many branches and their leaders. I figured it was an opportune time to take a little detour in my presentation and defend the often misunderstood behavior of obsessing about new account production.

To most of the retail world, this would seem to be a pretty silly thing to discuss. If you work at a restaurant or retailer or grocery store, "same store sales" are what you live and die by.

Yes, each of these types of businesses requires employees to perform any number of "nonsales" duties. And most of those duties, from hiring and training employees, to basic customer service, to the maintaining of the facilities, are vital to the overall success of the business.

Yet at the end of the day, they know that nothing else matters if sales are weak. Sales are the oxygen of an organization. When oxygen begins to get cut off, the organization is in peril.

Few senior managers of banks would have to be convinced of this. And yet I believe we too often fail to provide ongoing education to our front-line folks about why "new accounts" and our sales numbers need to be a paramount focus.

Over the years, I've found that groups showing up for training sessions are of two completely different mind-sets, depending on the title of the training. If the title suggests a service or marketing focus, folks show up ready to engage.

If, however, the course title mentions sales, many show up apprehensive. The negative stereotypes of sales and salespeople are hard to overcome. Many folks frankly do not want to be shown how to become better at something they have such negative feelings toward in the first place.

It has been my experience that too many managers tend to shrug off front-line employees' negative feelings about sales. They reason that it's part of their job, and they should grow up and stop complaining about it. (OK, I'm paraphrasing.)

I'd suggest that people who have a solid understanding of not only what they are being asked to do, but why they are being asked to do it are usually more engaged in their work. For whatever reason, many organizations neglect to consistently remind their troops of why sales (new account production, in our case) simply must be front of mind, from the front lines to the executive offices.

Our better employees work hard every day to perform the dozens of tasks necessary to keep their branches running efficiently and their customer service levels high. Most folks can go home at the end of the day knowing they've worked hard and diligently, whether they sold anything that day or not. When the perception sets in that all that really matters to management is the sales numbers, a certain level of resentment can develop.

Some time ago, a regional manager friend shared his straight-talking approach to this issue. He reminds his teams that customers are inarguably moving away from branches for their day-to-day banking. That being the case, if their branches ever stop being the drivers of new account production, it's — in his words — "Game over for the branches, man."

I kidded him that at least his team never has to read his mind to know what he is thinking.

An analogy that I've found seems to resonate well with groups is looking at new account production as the canary in the coal mine. Coal miners knew that the canaries they kept with them in the mines would let them know if conditions became hazardous. Even if they felt fine at the moment, they knew that if Tweety flatlined, trouble was ahead, and they had better take action immediately.

If a bank's new account production is falling off, the institution might feel fine at the moment. Yet experienced bankers know that, without action, serious problems are imminent. New accounts are indeed the oxygen of a bank.

If you haven't done so lately, take a few minutes in your next staff meeting to remind your teams that a strong focus on new account production doesn't mean that the other aspects of their jobs are unappreciated. But if they ever find themselves working for managers who aren't laser-focused on new account numbers, they're working for folks who are asleep at the wheel. And when that happens, companies and careers tend to end up in a ditch.

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