A few years ago, when I worked in St. Louis, my son and I met Mike Alexander, an extraordinarily helpful sneaker salesman at Athlete’s Foot. He sold my son some sneakers, cross-sold me a pair of shoes, and enrolled us in the store’s frequent sneaker club.

I was struck by Mike’s drive and discussed the possibility of a banking career with him. He was mildly interested, so I asked our HR department to try to hire him as a salesman. After hearing nothing about it for a while, I asked what had happened with him.

“He didn’t have any banking experience, so we didn’t hire him,” the HR representative told me.

We eventually hired Mike, and he became the most successful loan-by-phone salesman I’ve ever encountered. He produced more loans than many institutions in St. Louis and became a major factor in the marketplace. When I moved to Norwest Corp. (now Wells Fargo & Co.), Mike moved with me, and he has been a star performer in its Minneapolis phone bank ever since.

What makes Mike so special is who he is, not his professional training. He is a natural talent, the Tiger Woods of phone-based financial sales. He is simply world-class, and we need more people like him in our industry.

Unfortunately, too many of us are still thinking well within the box. We forget that it is often easier to make bankers out of salespeople than to make salespeople out of bankers.

The toughest thing to do in our business is to build a strong sales culture. Most banks pay lip service to it, but few do it effectively. The reason: We are still hiring the same type of people we have for decades — those comfortable with numbers, not people.

Supermarket banking has changed our potential-employee profile somewhat. Supermarket branches are open seven days a week, but most banks have had a tough time staffing branches that are open even six days a week.

Therefore, we realized early on that people with retail experience were well suited to supermarket branches. They have the proactive sales approach needed to succeed in that environment, and they are used to working weekend and evening hours.

Surprisingly, we did not learn enough from our successes in supermarket banking. Some parts of our system are still hiring only people with experience in the industry. Or they are still focusing on what a person already knows, not who that person is.

Disney, Ritz Carlton, and other companies are using personality assessment tests to hire people with the right aptitudes and values to create a consistent experience in their stores. We are using the same tests to hire the wrong people.

Great banking prospects can be found in many places. Waiters who can cross-sell a dessert with a compelling description (any mention of chocolate would do for me) would make terrific bankers. Certain retailers, such as Nordstrom’s or the Limited, have training programs that instill the type of sales culture that so many of us in banking are trying to create.

Anywhere service people put a smile on your face, fully meet your needs by showing you the complete product line, and explain how a product fits your own profile is a good place to recruit.

Our industry deals with an undifferentiated commodity — money. Yet we continue to hire front-line employees (particularly tellers) with limited screening and often without giving much thought to how well they fit our culture. We forget these employees are the bank to our customers.

We scramble to hire people to relieve the staffing crunches that invariably occur in our high-turnover retail business; yet we are missing the boat on the real pool of available talent.

Ms. Bird is president and CEO of California Community Bankshares. She is based in Sacramento.

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