The response to our Jan. 20 Schmidlap contest on dressing down and calling people by their first names was unbelievable.

Faxes and letters in response to the suggestions that people not use other's first names until asked to do so and that bankers should look like traditional bankers was at least five times as great as for any other contest we have had over the past several years.

Both sides had articulate advocates. Here is the scorecard: On not using first names of customers and callers unless asked to do so: 5 to 1 against. On dressing down all the time: almost even.

Some ideas that might be useful to other bankers:

*Dress-down can be a good compromise if the bank provides quality casual clothes, preferably with a bank logo.

*Dress-down could be made optional on certain days for those willing to make a charitable contribution for the privilege.

*Dress-down saves money for financially strapped employees.

Some dissenters on the first-name question:

Peter Louderback, independent consultant in Nantucket, Mass., wrote: "I don't disagree with you often, but this time I do. Having someone anyone call me by my first name is an honor. I hate being called Mr. Louderback."

Wayne Morris of Tysons National Bank in McLean, Va., offered: "After being in the banking industry for 27 years and attending numerous sales and customer service seminars, I have learned that customers prefer to be called by their first names. I have heard this on at least two occasions and understand that this was the result of customer service surveys. During the '70s and '80s I never addressed a customer by their first name, but times do change."

Regarding phone etiquette, Timothy Healy of First National Bank of Bar Harbor, Maine, had this to say:

"I detest calling somebody and having the secretary who fields the calls deciding who gets through and who doesn't. When asked, 'May I tell Mr. Smith who is calling,' I have been known to say: 'Does it make a difference?' Usually that breaks the ice, and I get through. "

Personally, I don't have a secretary. I answer my own phone or the calls go to my voice mail, which is checked regularly and calls are returned promptly."

David Wright, Mountain Bank, Telluride, Colo., responded:

"Regarding your point about receiving a call from someone's secretary announcing the call and asking you to hold, I think you were right on with your comment. To me, this is one of the most pretentious acts that anyone in a professional role could pull on another person.

"I've had this happen to me only a few times in my banking career, and every time it does I get the burning desire to tell them: 'No, I won't hold. Tell So-and-So that he/she can reach me when he brings himself down to the same level as the rest of us mortals and dials the phone himself.'"

Craig M. Stump, First Knox National Bank in Fredericktown, Ohio, wrote:

"I just received a fax from the president of our bank about your column on phone manners and dress-down days. Do you know how happy I am that he took time from his busy schedule to highlight items from that article and have his secretary shotgun that thing to all of our branches?

"Even I will admit that phone skills in the business world are a major problem. But I also remember the half-day, all-expenses-paid, luxurious training that I received in the infancy of my banking career. What an expense to the bank, to spend such an extravagant amount of investment on me only to have me remember it so well a decade later. DUH!"

Mortimer O'Shea, Ramapo Bank, Wayne, N.J., had this to say:

"I agree with the first part of your column. Too many people don't understand when it's appropriate to use one's first name in a business situation. I'm particularly turned off when a securities salesman whom I've never met thinks it's perfectly O.K. to use my first name."

And I must respond to the following comment from Mr. Wright from Telluride, Colo.:

"I could not help but wonder why you were so offended by your banker's secretary calling you by your first name, yet it seemed to be perfectly fine for your banker to do so. Is the secretary in a lesser position in life than you or your banker? Doesn't requiring people to address others as 'Mister,' 'Doctor,' or 'Professor' reek of the same mentality of superior- versus-subordinate as someone's having a secretary call and place you on hold?

"I have always felt that people who demanded being addressed by their titles were just a little too pompous for my tastes. What's wrong with being on a first-name basis with everyone? This is the '90s.

"I think you need to loosen up, or at least loosen your tie a little, Paul. Or should that be Mr. Nadler?"

I honestly feel I have been misinterpreted. I address everyone - secretaries to CEOs - by their last names until asked to do otherwise. I may not be in the '90, Mr. Wright, but I think "Mister" Or "Ms." is a title of respect for everyone.

Still, I am in the minority. I guess first names are in.

But wait until next week, when we run more responses on dressing down. There we have a hornet's nest - whether we're in the '90s or not.

Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.