Despite the increasing popularity of the Internet, banking roles involve more face-to-face time with customers, not less. But banks have strayed from asking tellers to be sellers, or give the idea little more than lip service.

And when a teller isn't seizing the opportunity to refer or sell the bank's other products and services, no one else may either.

One way to maximize such interactions is to expect more from tellers. They are often the first bank employees (or the only ones) with whom customers interact, so it should be easy for them to sell the bank's capabilities.

Where to startHow can a bank improve its teller line and get tellers' alarmingly high turnover rate down?

The first step is critical: Hiring the right people as tellers.

Most banks hire tellers for their ability to add, subtract, and balance the drawer. But what about people skills? These are often far down on the list of job requirements, and they shouldn't be.

True, tellers need to be able to count and so on, and need basic knowledge of some legal requirements. But the ability to discuss customers' financial needs and the services the bank has to offer is just as important. This skill dramatically increases a teller's value to the bank.

How do tellers become sellers? When they greet customers warmly, seem friendly and sincere, demonstrate an interest in others, and listen to people.

Tellers also put selling back into their roles by spending more time with each customer. The average teller sees about 100 people per day for approximately two to three minutes per transaction. A teller could easily spend another minute per customer selling the bank's other products and services. The referrals tellers provide to other product and service centers represent substantial opportunities for new or repeat business.

Banks should have incentive programs to reward tellers who generate in-house referrals. For example, measure the number of referrals as a percentage of transactions, and reward tellers with bonuses: a trip to the Bahamas, a cruise, or something similar for a certain percentage of referrals. This curtails turnover and adds fun and a sense of competition to the job.Another step banks can take to improve their teller lines is to hire teller supervisors or leaders with the skills that banks want to see in tellers. Leadership by example is not new, but there is no better way to instill customer orientation than for managers to model the behavior they expect. People with strong coaching skills and the emotional courage to be more people-oriented need to supervise the teller line.

Customer service parallels

Offering quality and consistent service should be as standard at a bank as it is at other customer-oriented businesses. If service attendants can follow a script at a Jiffy Lube, tellers can follow a formatted conversation at a bank.

What's important here is for conversations to be structured to incorporate key points, but not at the expense of sounding canned or insincere.

I know that when I drive into a Jiffy Lube someone will take care of all my car's needs in a predictable, consistent manner. Jiffy Lube employees do more than change the oil; they seize the opportunity to inspect the car and make suggestions.Jiffy Lube employees add value to my visit by cleaning the windshield (while looking for nicks so someone can recommend replacing it), vacuuming floor mats, inspecting all fluids and filters, and checking the warranty on my automobile.

And here's what they do best, usually at the end of my visit: Recommend additional services they think I might need.

Successful marketing at work here! Many times they make the extra sale by going the extra mile.

In principle, the Jiffy Lube experience need not be any different from the interaction between the customer and bank employee at the teller line. Yet in practice it is.

Tellers usually focus more on the transaction at hand than on the total financial needs of the client. They simply record the deposit, without ever asking customers if they are considering a new car purchase or a home improvement project or would like financial planning assistance.

Nothing to losePeople laughed at Jiffy Lube executives when they announced their new sales strategy for service attendants. But management understood that customer-oriented service would increase sales.

So change your expectations of tellers, make sure they know you have. Treat them differently, train them differently, reward them differently. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Mr. Swindle is vice president and director of consulting and executive leadership practices for Frontline Group FTR, a financial services consulting firm in Lombard, Ill.

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