In customer service, handling how a consumer feels when addressing their problems can be as important as actually solving the problems.

Most people have had experiences with service providers who remedied a problem while damaging the relationship in the process. Bankers need to ensure that their employees don’t fall into this trap.

I’m often reminded of the recurring character Jimmy Fallon played on "Saturday Night Live": “Nick Burns, your computer’s guy computer guy” resonated with so many because it made people cringe. No one wants to be made to feel like an annoyance or condescended to when receiving assistance. While Fallon’s character was played in an over-the-top manner, it had enough grains of truth in it to make it (painfully) funny.

I have long paid particular attention to the initial attitudes of people I have to ask for assistance. The differences can be stark. Some people seem to have instant empathy or at least the skill to fake it convincingly — and hey, I will give credit for the effort.

Others seem to become immediately confrontational and/or dismissive. I had just such an experience with an airline recently. When I checked in online the day before the trip, the website asked if I’d like to upgrade. After affirming that, sure, I’d take an upgrade if available, I found that their system then split my reservation. Instead of five tickets under one confirmation, my family now had three separate records.

While we all ended up keeping our original seats on the plane, my four fellow travelers would now not have the benefit of my airline “status” — and I was going to be charged for their checked bags. My saying I would accept an upgrade on the flight in the unlikely event it was available was set to cost me an additional $100, irrespective of whether I got the upgrade or not.

Between that day and the next, when checking in at the airport, I dealt with several customer representatives who seemed to be channeling Fallon’s Nick Burns.

Technically, my issue was resolved when we got to the airport, and I was not charged for something I believed to be clearly unfair. An outsider simply looking at the actions taken would likely assume the customer on the receiving end of that gesture would have positive feelings toward that company. The problem was resolved, right?

Yet in reality, hard feelings remain. The company only grudgingly did the right thing and felt the need to scold me in the process.

As our bank branches become less trafficked for the most basic of transactions, their roles in problem resolution and detailed transaction assistance are becoming more critical than ever.

Bankers exhibiting strong product knowledge, technological competence and task efficiency are, of course, important. But the levels of empathy and respect customers sense from our bankers matter more than ever in maintaining and strengthening relationships.

Going out of your way to acknowledge a person as soon as they enter a branch instantly conveys that they are important. Beyond that, politely addressing people by their names is one of the surest ways to communicate you see them as individuals and not faceless numbers on an account. These simple, cordial acts create human connections in what can sometimes be an intimidating environment.

We must never forget that customers do not “visit branches” to resolve problems or receive help, they visit bankers — individuals who have the ability to meaningfully impact a customer’s day beyond any specific problem.

Customer satisfaction is increasingly dependent not simply on bank employees’ knowledge and competence, but on their capacities to convey courtesy, empathy and respect as well. Consumers are counting on it.

Dave Martin

Dave Martin

Dave Martin is the founder of the retail bank performance company bankmechanics.

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