A conversation with a banker last month reminded me of some of my discussions long ago with one of my first banking mentors.

In the recent conversation, a friend told me how frustrated he had become with the business climate in which he and his counterparts operate.

He said many of the customers for whom they could easily approve loans are doing all they can these days to hold off on borrowing. Added to that, potential deals with somewhat riskier customers are not getting approved right now — including many he believes could have been made in the past.

He made a comment that was pretty descriptive of his frustrations: "It seems that all I hear from the people I call on every day is 'No,' and then all I get to tell the people who actually call me is 'No.' That doesn't exactly make for a fun day."

After I commiserated with him a bit and agreed that these conditions are frustrating, we agreed that this too shall pass. Our conversation turned toward things that we should be doing and saying to both sets of customers.

We obviously want to remain proactive and positive with current and potential customers who do not want our help just now. Out of sight is indeed usually out of mind, and we do not want to be either.

But what about the customers we have to say "No" to right now?

That part of our chat reminded me of conversations I had with my pal Leonard many years ago.

When I got my first job as a branch manager and loan officer, Leonard was one of the few "old-timers" who seemed not to mind actually helping new guys learn the ropes. He often joked that he did it in case one day one of us ran the bank; he said he wanted to make sure we owed him favors.

What impressed me first about Leonard was that he seemed to have more folks requesting him than anyone else in the bank. People did not want to talk to a "loan officer." They wanted to talk to Leonard.

I would later joke while addressing groups that my first 30 days of bank training seemed to center mostly on learning the forms and the math involved in making loans. Later the bank's best loan officer told me that I had been overtrained by about 29 days on that subject.

One of Leonard's pearls of wisdom stuck with me. He told me that the hardest part of making loans was not figuring out whether or not people qualified for them. The rules and the math are pretty straightforward. (OK, they were back then.) Leonard convinced me that the most important part of the loan process — and what separated the average performers from the top ones — was actually getting people to want to talk with you about a loan.

Nobody in the bank went through more business cards, shook more hands, or kissed more babies out in public than Leonard. Sure, he had a loyal base of customers he had helped with loans before. But that part was pretty easy to figure out.

What really amazed me was how many folks whom Leonard had to turn down for loans at one time or another came back to him later. Heck, sometimes people he had turned down for loans referred their friends and families to him.

Before long, I realized why. He thoroughly enjoyed having a job that allowed him to help people. He would tell me that even if he could not help the people sitting across the desk with a loan, he wanted to encourage them. First he was totally honest about the reasons a loan could not be approved, and then he gave advice to some and encouragement to all who took the time to meet with him.

Leonard made sure they knew that "No" today did not mean "No" forever, and that he hoped to be able to help them in the future. And many of these folks did give him the chance again down the line.

And Leonard explained that when you gave good advice and encouragement, the next time you saw that person, a "deal," whether personal or business-related, was almost always far more "doable." Turning what is often a negative or even embarrassing situation into a respectful and encouraging one earned Leonard many more opportunities to establish and expand relationships in the future.

Yes, the times have changed. My old friend is retired now and is reducing the fish population in his hometown on a biweekly basis. But I find myself reflecting on how the values and common-sense approach he took toward customers are as applicable now as ever.

Will the next customers you interact with walk away knowing you are on their side, regardless of whether you can give them everything they want today?

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