One of my oldest banker friends has long used a particular slide to reveal the three most important factors in the success of a bank branch. The slide lists the first important factor as "The Manager." The second ingredient is also "The Manager." And the third element is — you guessed it — "The Manager."

While that slide is intended to get a chuckle, my friend's personal experience and data back it up.

Over time, my friend has found that perpetually underperforming branches often get turned around after one particular change is made. That change is installing a more engaged manager. A new leader with fresh energy and commitment frequently improved various branches' profitability, even as the rest of the staff — at least initially — remained unchanged.

My friend's extensive data was derived from monitoring hundreds of in-store branches and in-store bankers — also known as the original universal bankers. With such small teams, one might argue that the right manager was even more critical to performance than the norm. But as new bank staffing models move closer to the in-store dynamic, the lesson is applicable to branches of all sizes.

All of this came to mind recently when another friend shared comments about a branch concept with which his bank had been experimenting for several years. This particular branch relies heavily on self-service technologies; the staff is effectively removed from any cash-handling duties.

From day one, the branch design looked impressive. But the results were consistently underwhelming. Within a few months, management began questioning whether the market was suited for that type of self-service branch. The branch staff could readily detail the problems customers appeared to be having with the new format. It wasn't a pretty picture.

But before calling the experiment a failure, management decided to bring in one of their top-performing managers from another branch. He was open about his apprehension in taking on a failing experiment, but he accepted the challenge anyway. (I'm not sure he was given a choice.)

Within a few months, that branch was producing results beyond the bank's expectations. In fact, it became one of their top new household-generating locations, all while operating with a leaner staff than many of its peer branches.

The branch design and technology had not changed one iota. But the attitudes and behaviors of the branches' employees had.

That bank is now incorporating many of the technology and design features of that once-failing experiment into its new branches and remodeling projects. What I stressed to my friend is that they should try to replicate that manager as well.

A great new design and improved technology will not win the day alone. I'm all for banks providing customers with better and more efficient ways to handle all of their branch-related needs. But it is the human factor that continues to make the greatest difference in whether customers will engage with, ignore or dismiss our latest offerings.

I've had branch-designer friends give me grief when I half-joke that, with the right staff, I'd take an ugly cinderblock box of a branch and out-produce whatever latest coffeehouse-spaceship hybrid they had come up with. But I'd certainly rather have the coffeehouse-spaceship branch. I just need to have the right captain and crew flying it.

We're in a time of transformation in the banking business. But one thing remains unchanged. The success and failure of our branches remain linked to the quality of the leaders and branch teams we place in them.

Innovative designs and technology are necessary. But as we become more technology-driven and commoditized, our branch teams become more important, not less.

For the foreseeable future, that will remain the area in which market share is won or lost.

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