Get Out of the Branch, Go Visit Local Businesses

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On a recent flight, the gentleman next to me shared a banking story that made my day.

When the dinner trays arrived, Jim and I put our books and headsets away and began chatting. I was heading home, and Jim was on his way to a board meeting. I found out that he had retired a few years ago and mostly plays golf these days. But to keep mentally engaged, he also sits on a few boards and helps out a friend by playing "part-time CFO" for his growing small-business.

After learning I was in banking, I could see the wheels in his head begin turning. He soon started peppering me with pretty insightful questions about the state of banking today.

When I mentioned a certain bank in his neck of the woods, he leaned forward and said, "You know, I really like those guys." Truth be told, that comment took me by surprise.

In recent years, this particular bank's reputation has not been great. It dawned on me that I didn't think I had ever heard someone say anything nice about it. Granted, most of the conversations I’ve had about that bank have been with other bankers who seldom have anything nice to say about the competition.

I quizzed Jim about his fondness for that bank, and he told me about the situation leading up to it. While helping put his friend's company's finances in order, he found that the company had four different loans and lines of credit with another big bank. They were for different terms and different rates and pretty confusing, even to Jim.

He accompanied his friend to their bank three separate times to attempt to combine the loans and simplify matters. Jim looked at me and said, "I think I know a little about financial statements. This company is solid, with good cash flow, and very low risk." He said that in each instance the folks at the local branches recognized what he wanted to do, said it made sense, but had to "get approval from the higher ups" to get it done.

Four months later, they were still waiting on approval. Jim said, "It's the darnedest thing. My friend's company is doing great and considering expansion. We're telling the bank we want to restructure our accounts — but, hey, we want to stay with them. And we're apparently a nuisance. I wondered if they truly couldn't get approval or just didn't want to bother with us."

He smiled and said, "And then on one of the days I happened to be in the office, Mary comes walking in." Jim continued, "I mean…she just walked in and said hello. She told us she was an officer with 'XYZ Bank' and wanted to introduce herself and her bank. She said if there was ever anything her bank could do to help them, she'd make it her personal responsibility to get it done."

"Well, grab a cup of coffee, and let me tell you what we need," Jim told her.

I was initially a little surprised by how surprised Jim was that a banker would do that. He seemed genuinely amazed that a banker was hustling for business, and he smiled ear-to-ear as he told the story.

Within 60 days of that visit, the company had moved its entire banking relationship to Mary's bank. My favorite comment of Jim's was, "And you know, the rate we got wasn't really all that better than the ones we had before. It actually may have cost us a few bucks to switch. And our new branch is about a mile farther away. But at least Mary's bank seems to actually want our business."

I looked at Jim and asked if not for Mary walking into the shop that day, did he think they'd still be with the old bank. He laughed and said, "I’d like to think not… but yeah, probably so. We were mad, but we hadn't been shopping around."

As I let Jim return to his meal, I told him that his story was inspirational to me. When he asked why, I told him that it's nice to get evidence now and then to support one of my soapbox speeches. I told him that I've stressed to branch managers over the past few years that if you want to grow (or save) your branch, you have to get out of your branch.

The other thing it reminded me of is that millions of dollars in marketing, technology, and facilities may not make as strong an impression on a customer as one dedicated banker.

There is no doubt that our industry is transforming. The manners and methods in which we deliver our products and services are evolving. And "getting leaner" is no longer a vague aspiration. It's a survival requirement.

But at the end of the day, winning and losing still usually comes down to which organizations are out there asking for and earning the business.

Is your team doing that this week?

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

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