I've long preached to bank managers and frontline employees about the open-loop nature of the brain's limbic system. (No, I'm not a doctor, but I sometimes play one in presentations.)
People greatly depend on external sources to regulate our moods. We are wired to be empathetic to the feelings and moods of others. This means that employees have a great deal of influence over the environments they work in each day as I saw firsthand during a recent trip to my local Department of Motor Vehicles office.
Customers of all stripes tend to behave in a manner that's highly correlated with how they are treated. Sure, some may walk into a store or make a phone call while in a less-than-pleasant frame of mind. And no one who has ever actually worked in customer service would deny that some folks are simply determined to be difficult.
More often than not, however, respect and courtesy begets respect and courtesy. It's simply how humans are wired.
But disinterest and poor manners tend to be reciprocated too. Otherwise-amiable folks can turn into irritated ones pretty quickly. That was certainly the case with my trip to the DMV.
It's true that the phrase "DMV" prompts most people to think of awful service. But in fairness to our local DMV, it's made investments in technology that have greatly improved the customer experience. Our branch allows people to "get in line" remotely by signing up on their website. It then sends text messages updating customers as they progress toward the front of the line.
If you are not present when it's your turn, you can text back and receive an extra 10 minutes or longer upon request. In each of my last two visits to the DMV, my wait time after walking in the door was less than two minutes. For folks old enough to have lots of DMV experiences under their belts, that is a truly amazing accomplishment.
So on my most recent visit to the DMV, I walked in feeling pretty darn enthusiastic about how organized this infamously inefficient place had become. However, things quickly went south as I was passed over from the DMV's truly impressive technology to one of its truly depressive employees.
Although I had done my best to fill out the proper forms and have various methods of identification ready, the employee informed me that I was missing a form I had never heard of before. The employee made it clear that many people before me had been equally unaware of the form's existence.
She pushed it toward me without looking up and mumbled, "I'll wait." When I later asked for clarification as to whether I needed to fill out a seemingly unrelated section, she snipped, "I can't fill the form out for you."
Through a now-tightened jaw, I grumbled, "I'm not asking you to fill this out. I'm asking for a little clarification on a certain section."
She told me to fill it out, and if it was wrong, I could have another form to do it again.
Over the course of just a few minutes, her dismissive tone and disinterested manner had transformed me from the smiling, pleasant person who had who walked in the door minutes earlier. I may have even asked an extra question or two just to annoy her further.
As the employee wandered off to fulfill some unexplained task, I looked around at the dozen or so other stations around me. Another DMV employee a few feet away had a smile on her face... as did her customer. And I knew that guy had been in the chair longer than me.
It looked like about half of the employees I could see were smiling. It also appeared that most of their customers were also smiling... or at least didn't seem openly miserable.
I sat there and reflected on the fact that some of these employees had a far different work environment each day. They got to deal with more polite and jovial customers. And that was largely because they created an enjoyable environment through their own actions. They have the same jobs in the same building with the same customers as their apparently unhappy peers. But their work environment is far different, because they make it so.
There is an important lesson for bankers in this: consciously projecting cheerfulness, respect, and appreciation creates environments that are more conducive to generating new customer relationships and expanding existing ones. It's up to bank managers and frontline staff to determine whether their work culture will be constructive or corrosive.
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached email@example.com and on Twitter at @instorebank.