After a recent presentation, a senior manager of the bank I was addressing told me something that initially concerned me and then left me smiling. He said, "I spent the first part of your speech nervous as a cat back there."

I half-heartedly laughed and asked "Why is that?" He told me, "Well, I'm sitting in the back of a room filled with my branch personnel, and you're talking about our industry's evolution and how branches mean less and less to customers. I'm watching them nodding and agreeing and laughing… and I'm waiting for them to remember that they all work in these branches you're burying."

Before I could respond, he said, "But my panic went away when you talked about how bankers' relationships, if not our branches, will be more important than ever going forward."

His observations elicited a laugh (a real one this time) from me. We then shared thoughts on keeping our teams more excited than frightened about the unavoidable transformation of our industry.

We discussed the suggestion one industry commentator made recently on service in a branch mattering less than ever. His thinking is that if customers really don't need to use a branch, do we really think that great service is going to keep them coming to one? He feels that banks should just save their money on the "branch experience."

I recognize the shreds of truth in that thinking. Folks who are still die-hard branch users will likely continue to be, even if a branch takes on DMV-type service levels.

And I don't believe non-branch users are going to noticeably increase their branch visits, even if the service is great. But increasing foot traffic is not the driving reason for an obsessive focus on providing great branch experiences. We're not necessarily expecting to increase branch visits.

Instead, we're looking to increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and, ideally, advocacy.

As face-to-face interaction between banker and customer becomes less frequent, the face-to-face interactions we do have take on even greater importance. In the past, an unpleasant experience may have been wiped away with a more positive face-to-face interaction a week or two later. That is not the case today. That disappointed or aggravated customer can go about his banking for weeks or months – considering and researching alternative banking solutions all the while – without having to interact with your bankers again.

Positive and negative impressions are more impactful and longer-lasting.

We also have to consider that an increasing number of our branch customers only walk into a branch as a last resort because they couldn't take care of their task online. The same customer who once looked at trips to a branch as routine now looks at them as impositions.

When taking the changing dynamics of branch visits into account, I've respectfully suggested to banker groups that the most powerful and beneficial impression we can make on customers is a basic one: appreciation.

In an increasingly commoditized and technology-driven industry, customers have fewer and fewer tangible differentiators to choose from. It is difficult to imagine that any one financial institution is going to truly differentiate itself with technology or pricing going forward.

We will increasingly compete on how customers feel about doing business with us. And one of the more powerful feelings a customer can have is that his business is honestly appreciated by the people and places he brings it to.

I'm not talking about the obligatory, "Thanks and have a nice day." Sure, that's better than, "Next!" But it doesn't exactly convey to a customer that the place he brings his business to actually appreciates the fact that he does – whether that business is a dry cleaner, restaurant or bank.

I've frequently suggested to bankers that most folks go about their days and even weeks without having a single service provider truly make them feel appreciated. Being one of the few people who personally and sincerely thank them for choosing you stands out today more than ever.

Take a look and listen around your branches. How much of your visual and verbal communicating is about selling customers something else? How much is about thanking them for giving you the business and opportunities they already have?

Is a visit to one of your branches – whether that is a weekly, monthly or semi-annual event – likely to recharge or drain a customer's goodwill towards you? Allowing those visits to feel like something both parties would prefer to skip drains relationships.

Communicating true appreciation recharges and often expands those relationships. Are your branch bankers recharging relationships today?

Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief training consultant at NCBS, a SunTrust Banks Inc. subsidiary that offers consulting, training, design and construction services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at