No one knows better than the generals that the test of a strategy is its execution. When it comes to the critical, emerging core competence of customer and market management, the test is management's ability to energize the troops, impart the knowledge and strategy, provide the tools, develop the troop's skills, and prepare them for the next attack.

In the next five years there will be no greater test of banking's executive management than its ability to develop front-line market competence.

Heads of distribution will be asked why they are presiding over the gradual erosion of $100 customer income streams that are valued on Wall Street at $1,000.

Heads of marketing will be asked about the promises they made when seven-figure information, technology, and segmentation solutions were being acquired.

Heads of information technology will be asked about hardware and software that were supposed to reduce cost, rechannel customers, and improve sales effectiveness.

In the past, banks have prized very specific competencies at the local- market front line: servicing and transacting. They are often not local- market competent.

Executives sometimes suppose that the complexities of retargeting, redeploying, and remixing - the subjects we covered last week - are too daunting for market managers and other front-line troops. But they forget that complex systems and procedures are increasingly common. Jet aircraft, smart bombs, and credit scoring software are all relatively complex, yet are operated by front-line professional and clerical staffs in various industries.

Once a strategy and technology plan are set, the nature of the challenge changes. Those in charge must now systematically design an agenda for acquiring front-line market competence. Ultimately, executing requires know-how for analyzing local or defined market potential, targeting best customers, redeploying resources, managing multiple channels, and responding to different target groups' buying motives.

It's great that executive management understands the new requirements. But they don't manage customers; local market teams do. The market competence embraced at the executive level pays off only when our front line manages customers differently.

The objective of the new front-line market competence is not to declare war on tired troops with outdated practices. It is to give them what they most need for a way to win. Yet generals with a winning history understand that developing new competence requires energy.

And energy is in short supply among battle-worn regulars who are already scarred from downsizing, conversions, and reengineering, and who increasingly sense that they are the dispensable, high-cost, low-tech option that everybody is scheming to eliminate. They are tired from working hard, but more than that, they are de-energized by losing.

So executive management must meet the troops where they find them - in the trenches, tired, and a little hopeless. And that's the challenge: to create new competence, which requires energy, where energy is a scarce resource.

Insanity is doing the same things and hoping to get different results. The front line is not insane, and they will not be energized by the old practices that got them there.

Rule No. 1 for top management is that communicating strategy and imparting information do not create insight for front-line teams. If you don't think so, try communicating a segmentation strategy of A, B, and C level customers with information on the number of C customers in a local market that are money losers. The number of erroneous conclusions will scare any executive team.

Information and strategy arrive in raw or bulk form, "without batteries, some assembly required." Insight is the job of management. It must be translated from "executive speak" to the front lines. It must be "owned" locally. We're not in the competence rental business; it's cheaper if our people own it.

Insight must also be specific, actionable, and - if it is to create energy - must credibly present greater hope for winning battles. Real insight into how to target, deploy, and win the right customers, street corner by street corner, requires a local process for using information, focusing efforts, developing skill, and receiving feedback that ties to a credible, market-focused strategy.

Insight is most powerful not when it arrives through rote or rule but when it is discovered and learned in small chunks, with the opportunity to be applied, practiced, and improved. One can't become an accomplished swimmer or archer by reading a book, and one can't learn the insights of front-line market management by listening to management.

The formula is simple: competence requires learning, learning requires energy, energy comes from insight into how to win. When generals want faster, better execution, they accelerate insight and learning.

The race for market competence continues as long as information and technology evolve, so the learning too must be sustained. How do we sustain the learning?

The constancy of the troops' insight, learning, and performing is a direct reflection of executive constancy - in touch, engaged, and accountable. In our experience, the greatest fear among managers and front- line staff is that they will commit wholeheartedly to the strategy of local-market competence, only to have their executives retreat to the old ways: Forget about best customer income streams - let's move more product.

More often, however, the rub is not an actual change in strategy but orders so vague and far removed from the actual battle as to seem irrelevant at best, and contradictory at worst.

Constancy requires being close enough to the fray so as to not accidentally redefine it. Executives must know the new questions about retention, expansion, attraction, and cost management of target groups. Their questions need to probe how front-line people are aligned with customers' buying motives, channel preferences, life-cycle events, or competitors' offerings. Simply asking about loans, deposits, and fees will reinforce past behaviors and discourage the newly market-competent front line.

The new battle is to win with the right customers. That is what will produce the most profitable, sustainable income streams - and ultimately loans, deposits, and fees.

Market-competent executives will steal a page from a "five-star general" from the recent past - Sam Walton. They'll manage one store at a time - retail, commercial, corporate, investment, trust - and lead the charge. Front-line market competence will not flourish where executive market competence wanes.

Mr. Hall is chief executive officer of ActionSystems Inc., Dallas, and author of "The Streetcorner Strategy for Winning Local Markets." Ms. Bird is chief operating officer of Roosevelt Financial Group, St. Louis.

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