Members of a community bank's front-line staff can be an effective sales resource without leaving the boundaries of their service positions and jeopardizing their relationship with the customer. This is the conclusion reached after analyzing findings from a series of focus groups at community banks in New England.

To increase business against the bigger conglomerate banks, community banks are considering using their front-line staff in sales. But redefining the role of the front-line staff to one that is more sales-oriented does not happen overnight.

My firm recently conducted employee focus groups for the Community Bank League of New England, using four of the trade group's member banks. Thirty-eight employees - 12 tellers and 26 customer service representatives-made up the focus groups. Length of service to their banks ranged from one month to 18 years.

Here are some of the findings:

Banks must address employees' views about selling. In many cases, participants only equate selling with products. Instead, the idea of a "buying environment," which creates an atmosphere where customers want to do more business with the bank, should be introduced.

Being asked to change the relationship with a customer is upsetting. Some said tellers display considerable anxiety when they sense that their role with customers is threatened.

Many front-line personnel appear to view their role as service providers, not salespeople. They see this as their most important role, and anything that compromises the customer-teller relationship is looked at with skepticism.

Front-line personnel may not be seen as salespeople by the customer. Customers may not feel that these employees are capable of advising them on financial matters. Instead, the front-line personnel could play an "intelligence" role, identifying sales possibilities.

Incentives have limited appeal. Based on participant comments, it appears that monetary incentives are perceived by some as not being "worth the effort." Some participants said the incentives made them feel creepy, that it felt like their motives were being manipulated.

Training must become more of a priority. Some participants claimed they had no training at all. One person stated her reluctance to talk about products other than basic accounts.

Now, how can these findings be used in a bank?

The focus groups revealed that there can be problems in transforming front-line staff into salespeople. Concerns about customer loyalty, negative views about sales and the questionable effectiveness of incentives could pose problems in creating a sales culture in a community bank.

This is not to say that front-line staff cannot be involved in sales. Far from it. Armed with a willingness to help the customer and the right information, front-line personnel can be an integral part of a sales culture.

Developing a products-intensive marketing program can generate customer interest in the bank. When this happens, customers come to the front line looking for assistance of their own accord. This keeps the front-line staff grounded in the service field, where they are more comfortable.

Based on the focus group research, it seems that community banks should pursue the following courses of action:

Educate the customer. The front-line staff will be more inclined to sell if a customer is ready to talk about what products the bank offers.

Train employees thoroughly. Some tellers frequently receive conflicting messages because different individuals are training them. Others said they had no training at all. Training should include information about products from both the bank and its competitors.

Revisit incentives. Many employees are not motivated by money. They once did it for customer satisfaction, and did it gladly.

Community banks are very fortunate. They have front-line employees who put a high value on maintaining customer relationships, a quickly waning attitude in today's culture. With the right tools and motivation, a front- line staff can become a useful ingredient in a sales culture.

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