During the past decade, a great deal has been said at bank conferences and in financial publications about the need for banks to develop a sales culture, expand their customer base, build multiple relationships, and be more effective in retaining customers.

But in reality, very few banks, particularly community banks, are addressing these critical issues to the degree required to achieve maximum market growth, maximize their profitability and hold sales personnel accountable for performance.

In the meantime, marketing-oriented large banks and nonbanks have become extremely adept at raiding competitors' most profitable customers.

Throughout the years, banks have generally made major improvements in their marketing effectiveness. The downside is that many community banks have not implemented sales practices, strategic planning, and the use of technology that is required to compete effectively.

In some banks, marketing and sales mean advertising, and primarily mass advertising designed to drive the sale of products and services that produce little or no profit. But traditional marketing practices by themselves no longer bring customers through the doors.

Today's savvy consumer of financial services sees little differentiation in what has become a commodity business. It is essential today that banks have marketing plans with strategies, tactics, and activities that will make a significant impact on attracting new profitable customers, building profitable multiple relationships, and retaining a profitable customer base for a lifetime.

Bank budgets for marketing must be crafted in response to the bank's strategic plan. Marketing is developed to impact these bank strategies. The marketing staff must be held accountable for a reasonable return on marketing investment.

It is clear that banks need in-house or outside marketing expertise to achieve high levels of marketing effectiveness. A bank cannot afford to relegate the marketing responsibility to someone that does not have the skills, interest, or time to lead the bank's marketing effort.

Banks can approach this marketing challenge two different ways.

They can hire a professional marketing coordinator whose responsibilities include effectively outsourcing and then managing external marketing resources. Leveraging these external resources, their bank is able to package an impressive marketing program at an affordable price.

Or they might prefer to have professional senior level marketing associates on staff.

What about the relationship between marketing and sales. Is marketing synonymous with selling?

In today's competitive environment, both are very specialized areas and special attention must be given to each of these critical functions. Banks need professional marketers and professional sales personnel to be competitive, to respond effectively to market needs and to achieve desired levels of profitability.

What is the status of professional selling in banks today? Have banks made progress in developing sales organizations in the past 20 years? In a Bank Marketing Association briefing of October 1994 prepared by Financial Shares Corp., the following findings were presented:

"While the evidence shows that banks continue to take steps toward developing a sales culture, it also suggests that, for the industry as a whole, the development of a sales culture has taken a back seat to other, more pressing phenomena."

It is critical that banks with a passion for being profitable survivors in the banking industry take an immediate course of action to build a sales organization. Successful banks have strategies in place that define their bank as a sales organization. These strategies would include having a sales budget, setting sales goals by business unit and sales associate, rewarding outstanding performance, and holding regular sales meetings.

Banks cannot afford the luxury of merely talking about doing these things. It is critical that senior management make a real commitment and provide the leadership required to make sales one of the top priorities.

Technology must play a critical role in supporting your marketing and sales functions. It is imperative that banks have technology support, including sales performance information that will integrate with their customer data base.

Most technology available today to sales personnel is compliance- oriented and operational in design, requiring sales personnel to perform compliance, forms, and system management. Sales personnel need sales information and sales tools at their immediate command. They must be able to zero in on their customers with a high propensity to buy, to be able to manage their customer contact activities, and to assess their customers' needs.

Sales personnel need to identify triggering events, such as their customers' maturing time deposits and maturing loans, and take appropriate action. Automated sales and referral tracking are a requirement to provide your sales team, sales managers and senior management with timely and meaningful reports.

Make sure that you have a professional marketing function that works in harmony and supports your sales organization. A finely tuned sales organization supported by an effective marketing staff can play a major role in your bank's being envied and feared by all competitors in your markets.

What must banks do to become high-performing sales organizations? It may require looking outside of the box and comparing your bank to the elements found at banks that have achieved success in sales. Such elements include a demonstrated commitment by senior management, an organization structure designed for sales, and clearly defined sales performance expectations.

Is your bank ready to be a major player? Have sales and sales management become top priorities in your bank? Your senior management team should develop a list of questions and answer them to determine your current sales readiness. Put yourself to the readiness test!

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