Both internal and external factors are undermining banks' efforts to improve customer service, but management can fight back.

The nation's healthy economy has driven down the unemployment rate. The downside for banks, especially for filling entry-level service jobs, is a decline in the quality of applicants. To ratchet up the quality of applicants and workers, an employer must offer higher salaries and more attractive benefits. Most banks do not pay their tellers and customer service representatives well enough.

Because it is difficult to fill these low-paying, entry-level customer contact positions, banks forgo a rigorous profiling of candidates. Quite often customers must deal with a low-paid functionary who is better suited to working alone or in manufacturing.

A bank's human resources manager would do well to hang a prominent sign: "Better to be understaffed with the right people than fully staffed with some wrong people." Those wrong people are going to irritate the customers and their co-workers and will increase turnover.

Current cultural trends also have hurt customer service. A decline in civility is all around us: road rage, The Jerry Springer Show, the near extinction of "sir" or "ma'am" in daily discourse.

This is an issue on both sides of the teller counter. Most customers remain civil, even when they are forced to endure little annoyances such as long wait times or having to show a driver's license to the same teller four visits in a row. But other customers' sense of entitlement and boorish behavior would try the patience and probity of Ms. Manners.

It takes a special person, one who has been well trained, to encounter such customers several times during the workday and still treat that person and the next customer in line as valued clients. Finding this special kind of employee requires even more diligent applicant screening as the talent pool dwindles.

Most businesses have three constituencies: customers, employees, and stockholders. Ideally, bank management would provide leadership ensuring optimum benefit to all three.

Stockholders usually get more management attention than staff and customers. Wall Street is far more demanding of banks, regarding revenue, efficiency ratios and return on assets, than of dot-com companies. Stockholders want quarter-to-quarter improvement; banks oblige them through mergers, consolidation, and tight expense control.

Many banks have their current stock price displayed prominently on the executive floor. It's a clear message to all - staff and visitors alike - that this is a very important measure to senior management.

Imagine the impact on customer service if the bank's chairman routinely showed up unannounced at branches or the telephone center and asked front-line employees, "What have you done recently to delight a customer?" Management would be very different from its competitors in hiring, training, and paying its staff and in the way it treats its customers. It would not be the lowest-priced bank in town, but it would expand its customer base and be profitable.

It's not that senior bank managers should focus entirely on customers and employees and let the stock value fend for itself. But management should give equal weight to all three of the bank's constituencies. Mr. Brittain is president of Brittain Associates Inc., a financial services research and consulting firm in Atlanta.

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