Few people would deny the importance of the first impression we make on potential customers. It is therefore a bit odd to me how many folks in our industry seem unaware of where many (if not most) of their first impressions are being made.

With all due respect to our facilities folks, that first impression is increasingly not occurring in branch lobbies. At an escalating rate, the first shopping point in many industries, including banking, is on the Internet. The previous sentence should not qualify as breaking news to anyone.

Yet many banks are still not operating in a way that suggests they fully recognize that our Web sites are becoming the true "storefronts" of our institutions. At a minimum, they have become the definitive catalogs of our companies' offerings.

When I discuss this with various banking groups, I'm often met with nodding agreement by many and slight annoyance by others. I then point out that I am not devaluing the importance of our physical branches' appearance or how they operate. But banks that are not cognizant of how many customers begin "shopping" their organizations on their Web sites are not paying enough attention.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal about Wal-Mart's evolving Internet strategy prompted me to reflect on this. Though Internet purchases currently amount to a little less than 5% of all retail purchases nationwide, consumers are increasingly choosing to begin their shopping on the Internet.

Wal-Mart's strategy uses its massive store footprint as a delivery channel for its online customers. Its "Site to Store" program lets customers shop an even larger inventory online than is carried in the stores. Purchases are then shipped free to a local store for pickup.

What I particularly like about the Wal-Mart example is that it shows that the most profitable retailer in the world, with more square footage of retail space than anyone, understands the seismic shifts that the Internet has induced in consumer preference.

Traditionalists would argue that a company with billions invested in real estate is nuts to make it as easy as possible for customers to avoid shopping in its stores. The retailer is even testing pickups at drive-up windows.

Some would suggest that Wal-Mart diminishes the value of these mammoth stores when it makes it increasingly simple for customers to avoid walking their aisles. But Wal-Mart understands that customers will always have final say on how, where and when they decide to do business.

And you never want to find yourself more interested in defending your operating model than in giving customers what they want, when and where they want it.

Whenever I bring up the "Web sites are the new storefronts" subject, many folks think primarily about the aesthetics and functionality of their sites. And sure, these are important.

A bank's entire brand can be quickly bolstered or diminished in the eyes of customers by its Web site.

But design aside, other issues evolving from the growing role of our Internet storefronts should command attention. One of the more obvious is that we have a customer base far more educated about our products and services and those of our competitors than ever before. People can do pretty detailed research from the comfort of their homes.

The days of pulling out a brochure and reading it along with an uninformed customer are ending. One of the things I only half-joke about with bankers is the fact that, on any given day, many of us have customers informing our own employees about the features of products that interest them.

When a customer gets the sense that he is more informed about an organization's offerings than the employee he is talking to, confidence erodes. When he gets information in a branch that conflicts with what he finds online, it is predictable that he would question the accuracy of both. This is not exactly a best practice for customer loyalty.

As the nervous laughter lingers, I like to ask folks whether they themselves regularly search their own Web sites and "drill down" to their products' features. Just as we should make sure our employees are fully aware of and ready to discuss whatever is the focus of our latest marketing campaign, we should encourage them to be as expert as possible on our Web sites and the information they contain. Customers now rightly expect this.

In the past couple of years, I have suggested that our branches may be evolving into the human interfaces of online operations. But this should not stimulate the spine chills that it so often seems to. Our jobs are evolving. Evolution does not mean elimination. And personal service and relationships become more important, not less, as technology levels the playing field.

With focus and effort, our branches and online channels can complement each other, raising the value of each to customers. Actually, to compete and succeed, they must do so.

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