Bankers know that the days are long gone when the offer of a free toaster or trading stamps would entice a housewife to open a savings account with cash from the sugar bowl. Today's customers are more demanding than ever before. They want it all - one-stop shopping, ease of doing business, personal service, low loan rates, high returns, financial planning, bill presentment, on-line services, 24-hour access, and on and on.

Facing these expectations, what can bankers do to separate themselves from the competition, remain profitable, and win their customers' loyalty? The answer lies in four critical areas: aggressive strategies, organizational integrity, corporate structure, and implementation of strategy.

"To be viewed as a full-service financial institution, the bank must know its customers and their needs," says Greg Wilkes, president of First Florida Bank in Lakeland. "This requires defining and identifying their 'dream clients' using the most current data-sampling techniques."

For example, community banks often target families purchasing multiple products. Along with checking and savings accounts, auto loans, and individual retirement accounts, the home equity loan is the most profitable product in the market. And it is the one that is the most beneficial to folks putting children through school, paying for braces, and planning weddings.

If these customers are also operating a small or midsize business, even more possibilities arise. The bank must find a way to become a partner in such enterprises. That, Mr. Wilkes says, is why personalized services matching products to identified needs will have the greatest impact.

In contrast, a bank dealing with "hot-money" certificates of deposit seeks an entirely different customer. Loyalty is not a factor. Interest rate at maturity keeps or loses the account. But it is not enough to simply be competitive. Rates must be better and the bank may choose to offer ancillary services through third parties (bookkeeping, credit cards, etc.) to increase customer penetration.

Then there is the question of expanding the base of those "dream clients" Mr. Wilkes spoke of. Once a client has purchased multiple services, inertia sets in; changing financial institutions is just too much trouble. That is often why it's so difficult to get new customers. Such a conversion can be almost impossible if there is no compelling reason for prospects to "shop" their business. A bank must offer all the services its rivals offer - and a little bit more.

To continue doing more - even with a deep-relationship client - you have to be inventive and add value to your products and services. Dennis Patterson, senior vice president of SunTrust Bank in Atlanta, said some banks are doing this by using outside resources for new ideas; planning more carefully and defining their markets more specifically; extending branch networks geographically; and buying information systems to help with market segmentation, cross-selling, and direct-mail programs.

Working with specialists in strategic planning and marketing can be the most effective step a growth-minded bank can take toward enhancing its position in the marketplace. These professionals (whether internal or external) can assist bank managers in asking the critical questions and finding the answers that lead to success.

As cost-cutting programs approach the limits of what banks can deliver, strategic planning has become ever more crucial. Research shows that organizations that write plans and implement them have significantly better bottom lines that those with no strategy or only an informal one. Making customer service a component of the strategic plan results in higher profits.

Your plan should based on organizational values. When such values are embraced by all employees, uncertainty is removed from the decision-making process and employees gain confidence and pride in individual and collective contributions.

Of course, the organizational structure must support the strategic plan. A lot of valuable time can be wasted trying to implement new strategies within an old structure. Mr. Wilkes at First Florida explained it this way: "First, you must have managers experienced in changing the culture of an organization and who are able to manage in the high-performance environment you want to have. Secondly, when employees realize the benefit from achieving the goals, they will work harder to ensure their successful completion."

Many managers stay too loyal to people who are not jumping on the new strategy bandwagon. For those employees who can't "get with the program," it is better to help them make another career choice than to let them drag down the entire operation. The same goes for managers who do not have the necessary experience or who are not performing satisfactorily in the new environment. Getting "producers" on board energizes the entire organization.

How do you ensure the plan is implemented? By making sure implementation is everyone's job. The plan should be written in such a way that it is integral to doing business.

Because the banking industry is that it is so dynamic, the only certainty is change. So the strategic plan must be a living organism, supported by the integrity and structure of the organization. If managers are saying one thing and doing another, there will be confusion among the ranks. There must be consistency in values, a sense of urgency, and a profit orientation that is shared by the entire company. Elements crucial to a strategic plan are a follow-up mechanism, specific accountability, measurement criteria, and incentives for achievement.

Don't try to do it all alone. Hire good people. Refine and update methods. Build on past successes, but don't become complacent; constant reinvention is imperative.

A clearly focused written plan that is subscribed to by all employees, coupled with an organizational structure designed to support the plan, will yield bottom-line results. If the expertise does not reside in-house, professional alliances and technologies are available to help you achieve your goals. Ms. Layton is president of Corporate Strategy Institute in Windermere, Fla., and the author of several books, including " Competitive Strategies: Planning Your Organization's Success." Some research findings reported in this article are based on the work of Mishalanie Layton and Associates.

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