When I attended the ABA's Stonier Graduate School of Banking nearly a decade ago, two of the hottest topics of conversation were "How can we get bankers to become more effective as salespeople?" and "How can we create and sustain a sales culture?"

Community and smaller regional banks continue to struggle with these two questions. If anything, the pressure to find workable answers has only increased.

In the past decade, competitive pressures in financial services have increased significantly. The number and complexity of products and services offered to consumers and businesses have also risen dramatically. In addition, "relationship banking" has been adopted by virtually everyone as a central strategy for increasing account profitability and retention. All of these developments have made strengthening personal selling capabilities more important than ever to banks' survival and prosperity.

Bankers understand intellectually the need to become more effective salespeople. As Dr. Leonard L. Berry of Texas A & M University said in his book, "Selling in Banking," "The need for bankers to sell is clear. Relationship banking depends on good selling to start a relationship, good service to maintain it, and more good selling to build it."

However, many bankers resist the idea emotionally. They simply do not see themselves as salesmen. As a result, the much-talked-about goal of creating a sales culture in banks has generally met with limited success.

What prevents bankers from becoming more effective salespeople, and banks from creating successful sales cultures? I would submit that the view of selling held by most bankers is an obstacle. Ask a roomful of bankers, "What do you think of when you hear the word salesman?" You typically get the following responses:

"Fast-talker."

"High pressure."

"Con man."

"Someone who's out to get me!"

The bottom line is that bankers view themselves as professionals and view most salespeople as unprofessional. And why shouldn't they? Much of what has traditionally passed for sales training has taught techniques like "101 Tricky Closes" and propagated the idea that selling is fundamentally an adversarial encounter.

Many would have us believe that sales success and ethics are mutually exclusive. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best professional salespeople have always known that.

Unfortunately, many sales training programs either explicitly or implicitly ask bankers to behave in ways that conflict with their personal values and ethics.

Changing bankers' view of selling from negative to positive begins with a customer-focused definition of selling. Selling could be defined as identifying and filling people's needs and creating value for them. By keeping the focus on identifying and filling the customer's needs and wants, we position selling in stark contrast to the slick, product-focused salesman who cares only about making a sale - regardless of whether it helps or hurts the customer.

There's a lot of talk a lot about values and ethics when discussing sales performance with bankers. Why? Because when bankers develop strong, positive beliefs about selling and what it takes to sell successfully, their sales performance improves. We talk about selling as an exchange of value; selling isn't something you do to someone, it's something you do for and with someone.

We stress that understanding people's wants and needs must always precede any attempt to sell, and that trust and rapport must be developed before any selling begins. Integrity and high ethics are the basis for long-term selling success. And lastly, closing isn't just a victory for the salesperson, it's a victory for both the salesperson and the customer.

All of this leads us to the two golden rules of selling with integrity:

Rule 1: We will not attempt to sell our customers anything they do not need or want.

Rule 2: We have a responsibility to aggressively work each day to uncover any and all unmet needs or wants our customers or prospective customers have, and to help them fill those needs.

When you think about "relationship banking," remember that the key word is ''relationship." Ask people what they look for in a long-term relationship - business or personal - and you'll hear words like "honesty," "trust," "caring," and "dependability." These are timeless qualities that can serve us well in our sales efforts.

Bankers will begin to sell successfully only when selling has been redefined and sales training is based on sound values, ethics, and integrity. Redefining selling and sales training in this way produces a positive view of selling that is consistent with how bankers see themselves.

Introducing integrity into all our selling efforts goes a long way toward changing bankers' emotional feelings about selling. Ask a roomful of bankers, "What do you think of when I mention 'integrity selling'?" Typical responses include, "An honest process." "When someone sells me the right thing." "Forming trusting relationships."

Shifting bankers' view of selling from negative to positive is foundational; when this is accomplished, creating an effective sales culture becomes possible. This transformation will allow community banks and smaller regionals to finally become the successful sales organizations they need to be in today's competitive marketplace.

Mr. Foley is president of Leadership Development Systems, a consulting firm in Cary, N.C.

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