In a recent study by KPMG Peat Marwick called Project Excellence, an overwhelming number of community bank chief executive officers identified their competitive advantage as relationship banking.

In another report, published in ABA Banking Journal, 94% of community bankers said creating a sales culture is important to them. However, only 42% felt they had achieved a selling strategy in their banks.

Why haven't more bankers arrived at a vibrant, relationship-based sales process?

There are many contributing factors, but culture is at the top of the list. The industry has been trying (with mixed results) to achieve a sales culture for the better part of a decade. We hear that banks are retail stores like any other. Should it be this hard to adopt well-known sales techniques in our retail stores? The fact is, financial solutions are much different from automobiles or electronics.

What any true financial professional is selling is advice, and to do this requires having an "advisory culture." In such a culture, the focus is on the customer, whereas in a sales culture, the focus is on the sale. There is a big difference.

An advisory culture is an ongoing obsession with adding value for our customers. In a sales culture you focus on how to sell.

Here are seven steps necessary for the building of an advisory culture.

You first need a mission, a sense of purpose. The mission of all companies is the creation of customer value. A customer should be able to read your mission and understand why they should do business with you.

As with attorneys, accountants, architects, and engineers, who prosper by providing tailored advice to each individual client, there are no real economies of scale in the advice business. Businesses are built largely through referral. The value proposition is in listening to customers and tailoring a solution with expertise.

Each organization needs to identify its Key Relationship Providers, or KRPs-the individuals who are providing advice to your best customers. For customers to get a unique solution to their problems, it must be delivered by a real adviser. Since KRPs should be devoted solely to the creation of value for their customers, they should have as few operational burdens as possible.

Typical stockbrokers will spend significantly more time with their best customers than typical branch managers would.

An increasingly popular approach would be to have a branch service manager (in most cases the assistant branch manager) handle most (or ideally all) of the operations of the office. Then you can designate a relationship manager-one person to focus on A customers who is empowered to make all appropriate decisions at the point of contact.

Many banks today have committees for things like cost control, asset- liability management, and fee income. Banks should have a committee for the creation of customer value-an essential component in an advisory culture.

Banks spend remarkably little time and resources on the hiring process, whether the candidate is internal or external. Recruiting is an ongoing process, and extensive interviewing and testing is essential. Additional time and effort in this area has an enormous payback.

Banks that have an advisory culture should be considered learning organizations. Once you have the best people you can find, you need to invest continually in their training. In an advisory culture, this is "product development."

If there are just two values advisers should have, they are trust and creativity. The core of every relationship is trust. Without it you have nothing. And since the product of advisers is individualized solutions, they need to be creative. Sadly, many banks have engineered creativity out of the process in the name of consistent execution of policies and procedures. Good advisers need only the general rules of the game and do the rest on their own.

The Merrill Lynch Cash Management Account is a great example of a true understanding of customer value. For banks, the checking-money market combination can be the equivalent of the CMA. Then KRPs must be given the rest of the products necessary to fulfill the customers' needs: banking, investment, financial planning, and insurance products. In this context we need to question whether we can provide more value as a manufacturer or a distributor of products. Advisers, after all, are in the distribution business.

Why don't doctors do house calls anymore? Why aren't there many full-service gas stations? Delivery is too expensive. Physical delivery is a critical banking component, but we need to make it more effective. We need to make the transaction side of our business more efficient and focus on higher-value interactions.

Each customer interaction should be an unsurpassed customer experience. A great step most banks can take is the designation of a bankwide manager of the customer experience, someone who can cross departmental lines to achieve the desired quality.

We cannot wait for computer systems to begin building advisory cultures. It is better to rely on manual systems than to wait for a technological savior. That being said, customer relationship management systems can be very effective in helping to manage the customer experience. Customer marketing systems can provide great support as our focus shifts from market share to wallet share. The Internet is providing us the ability to do one-to-one marketing with our targeted groups. The technology can be a powerful tool. But the customer relationship should be the focal point, not the system.

With a partnership philosophy, the interests of customers, employees, and shareholders are aligned. KRPs are treated as partners, who use an asset-management approach to move from a transaction-based to a relationship-based business.

To instill the partnership philosophy, keep it simple, use an assets- under-management formula, make it team-oriented and performance-based, and ensure a quick payment.

Tailored solutions delivered by trusted and creative advisers are the single greatest source of competitive advantage for financial institutions. Delivering this solution in an integrated fashion and ensuring an unsurpassed customer experience will provide a constant stream of profitable, lifetime-loyal customers. Mr. Gabrielsen is president of Strategic Connections Group of New York, a consulting firm that specializes in relationship-building strategies.

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