When it comes to building a sales culture, more and more bankers see their beau ideals in the likes of Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

The retailer paradigm is, of course, not entirely new for bankers. But in recent years it has become impossible to escape the talk about branches as stores, bankers as salesmen, and customers as relationships.

Still, most bankers these days are talking about their sales culture in the future tense.

That's why it's instructive to look at Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp., which was among the first banks to embrace the argot of retailing.

"They were one of the first," said Anat Bird, managing partner of FinExc Group in New York and exponent of the super community bank strategy. "And they don't just talk about it. They do it."

What $56.9 billion-asset Norwest does, and does well, is bring the strength of its mortgage, consumer finance, credit card, and other subsidiaries to its network of 76 affiliate banks.

The aim is to leverage customer relationships at its community banks with a wide range of products and services.

Phillip Carter, an analyst with CS First Boston Corp., noted that Norwest boasts one of the highest cross-sell numbers in the industry.

Richard Kovacevich, Norwest's chief executive, has said that the bank has some 3.6 relationships with each customer, about twice the number it had five years ago.

Norwest's strategy also involves a commitment to its branch network, which executives see as key presence in the many rural communities where it does business.

While that commitment may sound a bit old-fashioned in an era of changing delivery channels, observers say the emphasis on retail is anything but.

"They don't call their branches branches, they call them stores. They measure sales per store, they measure sales per square foot. They measure sales per salesperson," noted Ms. Bird. "It is the whole culture, by the nomenclature and everything else, that they have directed toward serving the customer."

"As much as we offer alternative delivery methods to our customers, the branch seems to be a point of preference for most," said Mary Ann Lydick, corporate director of sales development at Norwest. "And that's their point of contact."

To make the most of that contact, Norwest last year began to pilot a program to gain more detailed financial information about its customers.

When a consumer enters a branch and asks about a loan or other product, a customer service representative will attempt to run him through its "profiling road map." It's a version of the financial planner approach.

"A series of interview questions are asked to determine what the customer currently has, what they need, what they might have elsewhere," said Ms. Lydick.

The road map itself is designed as a flow chart. So different responses can lead to different follow-up questions. An interview with a senior citizen, for example, would follow a different path than one with a parent of college-age children.

Ms. Lydick said that only customers who initiate contact with the bank are invited to go through the process. "They are much more likely to divulge total financial information" than if they were "proactive solicited."

The road mapping process, which was piloted in Nebraska, is not yet automated. "We wanted to test that in a uniform paper-based methodology that is thoroughly coached at the branch level before we went to automating that," said Ms. Lydick.

Still, the success of the paper-intensive pilot has led to an aggressive rollout throughout the Norwest's affiliates.

At branches where the road map is now used, cross-sales to new households has increased "anywhere from 100 to 300 basis points," said Ms. Lydick. "Let's say, on average, you move from 2.5 products sold at point of sale to 3.5 to 4.5."

Norwest said it is in the process of automating the road map and that the automated version will be piloted in the fourth quarter.

Still, the computerized system, which Norwest is developing itself, will not, in the near term at least, operate in conjunction with the bank's customer information file - often touted as one of the most advanced in the industry. It is a piece of the Strategic Banking System, the multimillion- dollar effort of Norwest, Electronic Data Systems Corp., and Banc One to build a highly sophisticated, integrated banking system. While Norwest withdrew from the project after delays in the development of the core accounting software, the bank did deploy the customer information file.

But Ms. Lydick said the specific nature of the information the bank was looking has required it to design its own system.

"We've looked at software packages," she said.

The demographic information banks routinely purchase to add to their customer information files, she said, "is really not complete and it is not always 100% accurate."

"What we are gathering is in the here and now and it's very accurate and it's very specific about a particular customer." she added.

Eventually, however, Norwest plans to integrate its automated road map with its customer information file.

While the early returns on the new project are encouraging, Ms. Lydick conceded that there was one potential barrier: Some branch employees were a bit squeamish about asking customers probing questions about their finances. They worried, she said, that customers "were going to be offended when we begin asking these kinds of questions."

To overcome that reluctance, Norwest offers training for its sales managers at their regular monthly or bimonthly meetings.

Ms. Lydick said managers learn the tactics and techniques of the profiling road map. In addition, she said, they find out "How do you train, how do you coach, how do you hold practice sessions with your people, how do you observe and get feedback at point of sale to ensure that they are really leveraging the skills and serving the customer?"

The goal, she said, is to prepare personnel for what to expect.

Norwest also faces the challenge of bringing its sales culture to banks it acquires. Since May of last year, Norwest has bought, or agreed to buy, some 15 banks.

"We are not expecting from Day One a sales manager in a new acquisition to be performing and doing all of the things that one of our more mature regions is doing," said Ms. Lydick. "But there is a definitive developmental path that we take them on."

Typically, she said, the bank president, the consumer banking manager, and the teller supervisor of an acquired institution would attend what Norwest calls "boot camp."

"You've got to get to the basics first," said Ms. Lydick. "We first show them the overview of the vision of what the sales process is at Norwest. We will be working on the basic elements of each one of these sales processes and building upon that.

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