Recent interactions with a satellite TV provider have me reflecting on a lesson I've been preaching to bankers for years. In order to build healthy and productive sales cultures, banks need to recognize that keeping an existing customer happy is every bit as important as attracting a new one. And the best way to position yourself for success in cross-selling or up-selling is to impress existing customers with the services you already provide.

It's a well-known fact that the costs of attracting a new customer far exceed the costs of retaining an existing one. Few would disagree that slowing the rate of customer attrition even slightly can have a significant impact on a company's bottom line.

Apparently, the aforementioned satellite company didn't get that memo. My family has been a customer for six-plus years, paying the company around $120 per month, or about $9,000 over the course of our relationship.

Some time ago, the company began heavily advertising upgraded features in their new equipment. Our old digital video recorders had none of those improved features. When we called to ask for the new equipment, we were told that it would cost us a couple hundred dollars for the swap, plus a higher monthly fee going forward.

Amazingly, new customers got that DVR equipment free and paid a lower monthly fee than our current rate during their first year. We complained, but the company wouldn't budge.

For whatever reason, we didn't immediately leave. This is probably the reaction the company is counting on.

But then a competitor began advertising even better packages and DVR functionality. Sure enough, the DVR equipment and installation are free and the monthly rate is lower than what we currently pay.

My wife called and explained the far-better deal that the competition was offering.

Without missing a beat, the young lady offered us a $5 credit on our monthly bill
for a year. No equipment change. No matching of the other company's offer. That was "the best she could do."

My wife told her that we were cancelling the service. The young lady asked if she could put her on hold in order to speak with a manager. She came back with an improved but still inferior offer. My wife said, "No thanks. We'll be switching."

The young lady then asked if she could call my wife back in a few minutes. When she did, the offer was close to that of the competition. It's funny how the best they could do for a longtime customer changed dramatically in the course of 10 minutes.

Had this been the company's original offer, we might have been likely to stay. But at that point, my wife said, "Even if they match or beat the deal, I'm done with these guys. I don't trust them. They made us argue and fight to simply be treated as well as anyone who's not already a customer. That's insane."

I chuckled and said, "Good diagnosis."

This is a very transparent example of a company taking existing customers for granted. But the misplaced notion that current customers have already been won and therefore needn't be prioritized is widespread.

Too many businesses confuse customer apathy for loyalty. The fact that a customer has been with you for an extended period of time may not be as predictive of their future decisions as you think.

And just because a certain customer base has always conducted business in a certain manner does not mean their preference will remain static in perpetuity. Back before the word Google was a verb, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates famously said, "In three years, every product my company makes will be obsolete. The only question is whether we'll make them obsolete or somebody else will."

Technology companies may be the fruit flies of the business world, with life cycles that are shorter than most. But as technology plays a larger role in our customers' lives, banks' ability to adapt to new realities must speed up too. It is increasingly vital to proactively provide existing customers with improved products, services and branch access-before your toughest competitors beat you to it.

Moreover, in an increasingly competitive landscape, positive face-to-face (or phone-to-phone) interactions with customers have never been more essential. It's no accident that the companies most focused on strengthening relationships with existing customers tend to be the ones best positioned to attract new customers as well.

Existing customers are arguably the most valuable asset of any company. Make sure that your customers can tell by your actions that you recognize that fact.

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 at dmartin@supermarketbank.com.