We at American Banker have been gratified by the response to our Schmidlap National Bank contests.

Certificates have been awarded to about 15 bankers and consultants. Some have been framed and hung on office walls. And some are being used as coasters so that hot coffee doesn't damage desks.

I've been thinking of starting a club so that these leaders in the field of finance could network with one another.

If you have ideas as to forming a Winners-of-the-Schmidlap-National- Bank-Contest Club that could add value to our industry, let us know.

As for the current contest, the question is this: How do you know when somebody (you, a colleague, a banker you deal with) is "out of the loop"- that is, doesn't know what is going on-and therefore damages the bank through ignorance?

I have written about the customer service representative who gave me a dumb answer. When I said, "This didn't make sense to me," she replied: "It doesn't make sense to me either, but that's what I was told to tell you." Talk about hurting a bank's image in a nanosecond.

Here's an example from outside the industry.

I tried to book an Amtrak sleeper and was told by an agent that service was being discontinued as of Nov. 10.

I knew that was wrong; the cancellation date had been pushed back six months. So I said: "Push the reservation button on your computer anyway."

She did. "My gosh," she gasped, "you are right."

Think how many fares the financially strapped railroad is losing because those closest to the public are out of the loop.

This is why I advise bankers that their guards and phone operators should be among the first to learn about changes in services, policies, or personnel.

Sometimes-especially after mergers and acquisitions - employees are kept out of the loop on issues that affect them greatly.

One employee of a bank that was taken over recently told me that he needed to find a doctor for a long procedure, but that the new owners hadn't given employees the name of the new HMO. Decisions like that lead employees to talk about the bank as "they" rather than "we"-a sign of dissatisfaction that customers and fellow employees can quickly sense.

Banks also hurt themselves when they fail to tell employees how today's priorities differ from yesterday's. Think of the bank that wants to expand lending but whose employees are still stressing risk avoidance.

Please send us your own best examples of people who have been out of the loop and what that has meant to them, their customers, and their bank.

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