Focus on employees, not competitors

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A recent conversation with members of a bank’s management team had me reflecting on the old joke about how the older we get, the smarter our parents become. As we discussed the new competition entering their markets, I recalled things shared by a boss I worked for long ago.

As I commented, I heard some of his words coming out of my mouth. Although the changes and challenges these bankers are facing are a bit different, much of my old boss’s wisdom still applies.

He wasn’t a person enamored with conversations about strategy, despite being very sharp. He drilled into us that obsessing on competitors’ strategies can be a recipe for disaster. In one meeting, he proclaimed, “I’m not entirely convinced they understand their own businesses. I don’t think we want them running ours. Worry more about what you are going to do today than what they’re doing.”

That didn’t mean that we wouldn’t steal a great idea if we saw one. He warned us, however, of the dangers of paying more attention to competitors than we did to our own customers and employees.

As a rookie manager, I probably spent a little too much time worrying about the rates and product features offered by the competition. In my head, I had a list of competitors I thought I could beat and those that just had better offers than I did.

At one meeting, I made a comment about how I wished we would match the offers that one of our more aggressive competitors was making.

I absolutely teed up what I had coming to me. Our boss looked at me and said, “If we need to pay the highest rates and charge the lowest fees for you to attract and keep customers, what exactly are you here for?”

It didn’t sound like that was the first time he had spoken those words. From the smiles of some of my peers, I guessed they had been the recipients of that particular dose of tough love before as well.

To his credit, however, he didn’t just leave me to feel like the clueless rookie. He looked around the room and said, “We have a room full of really talented people here. Our teams are the best bankers around and we work harder than anyone to serve our customers. That’s who you are. That’s what we sell.”

Granted, bank leaders at other banks may have been telling their people the very same thing. Sitting in that room, however, I absolutely bought in to his assertion. The reasons customers would want to choose our bank were the people in that room and back in our branches.

I have kept that concept in my head ever since. Banks aren’t buildings. They aren’t technology or marketing campaigns, either.

A bank is its people. The organizations that understand this and continually communicate it to their teams are the ones that survive and thrive through our industry’s evolution.

They tend to outperform their competition because their people understand that they do not simply sell products. They, themselves, are in large part the product customers choose.

The branches they work in may be the most convenient and state-of-the-art. Their mobile tools may be the latest and greatest. Their pricing might be the most aggressive in their markets.

On the other hand, none of those things may be true.

The most successful teams in our industry may not share identical strategies or have matching competitive environments. What they do have in common is they know who they are, what they are, and what they do.

More importantly, their leaders continuously communicate and reinforce those things to their teams. A bank’s people are the only true differentiating factor from one bank to the next.

That is not a slogan. It is a fact.

Branches, technology and products are tools that help bankers serve customers. Tools alone, however, do not build anything. They require good people utilizing them to create, build and maintain relationships.

A danger I see in too many organizations is people who seem to be in a perpetual state of waiting for “new and improved.” Their thinking is apparently that whenever they eventually have “better offers,” they’ll step up their game. They’ll knock on more doors. They’ll shake more hands. They’ll make more outbound calls. They’ll have better conversations with customers about their current and future needs.

Unfortunately, waiting for somebody to change something outside of your control becomes a pattern. And there will always be something to wait for.

Remind your bankers that you have what you need, right now, to make customers prefer you. They see it in the mirror each morning.

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