For their next trick, community bankers will turn themselves into ... (drum roll, please) ... salespeople.

Large banks have been transforming themselves for at least a decade into marketing-focused institutions. But at small banks, a new focus has been slower in coming.

A recent survey showed that community bankers think having a sales culture is important but that a majority admit they don't have one.

Now, the American Bankers Association has unveiled a new program to make small bankers better salespeople. And some bankers say they've already started changing the traditional ways they do business.

"We are no longer going to do a reasonable amount of business because we're on the busiest corner or have the prettiest sign," said F.C. Nick Nixon, president and chief executive officer of First Bank, Tallahassee, Fla.

Getting bankers to the point where they could rival a smooth-talking Merrill Lynch broker appears to be the toughest challenge.

"There are lots of people in banking who can handle the business once it comes through the door," said Thomas E. Hitselberger, managing director of Professional Consulting Associates in Timonium, Md. "But there are not many who are rainmakers who can make it physically come through the door."

Bankers say the shift in focus is needed because increasing competition from brokerage firms, insurance companies, and other banks is making them realize they have to take the initiative to bring in new customers.

In particular, nonbank companies already have sales and marketing savvy, so bankers need to catch up.

A survey by the ABA's Banking Journal found that 94% of community banks said creating a sales culture-one in which employees actively try to sell and cross-sell deposit and investment products-is important to their banks. However, the study reported that only 42% of these bankers felt they had achieved a selling strategy in their banks.

The ABA last week issued a series of workbooks that focus on teaching community bankers how to sell-and how to create a sales environment.

Cathrine Nelson, assistant director of the ABA Community Bankers Council, said the trade group, along with the Bank Marketing Association, developed the workbooks because selling has become a top priority at smaller banks.

Besides encouraging banks to hire bankers with marketing and sales skills, Ms. Nelson said, the trade groups are stressing that sales and marketing knowledge must start at the top. "The leadership really does have to come from the CEO," she said. "They have to be the champion of the cause-the cheerleader throughout."

Richard G. Dorner, president and chief executive officer of Michigan's Ann Arbor Commerce Bank, said he's trying to hire and retain employees and officers who he thinks will develop sales skills.

Clarence Jones, president and chief executive officer of Farmers and Merchants State Bank, Boise, Idaho, has even hired a nonbanker to direct marketing efforts at his $86 million-asset institution. "It brought kind of a fresh perspective to the bank," he said.

But some bankers say starting from scratch can be easier than trying to change the ways of seasoned bankers who don't have sales training.

"When we opened our doors we didn't have any customers," said Samuel A. Ladd, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Maine Bank and Trust Co. "I think we were probably forced into a sales-culture environment from day one."

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