A group of senior managers recently asked me if they would need to hire people with a different personality type for new "universal banker" roles. "That depends," I joked. "Do you allow the branch staff to have personalities?"
Joking aside, I've noticed a common trend during my years touring in-store banks — the pioneers of the universal banking model. Senior managers taking me to visit an in-store location would often give me a heads-up that a particular branch was unpredictable, to put it nicely.
These managers wanted me to know that they weren't sure what we would see or find in a given location. Some seemed to preemptively disavow whatever nuttiness we were about to witness.
But the "silly" practices at in-store branches rarely struck me as misguided. The decorations, displays and games that made some bank management cringe didn't bother me at all. I usually liked even the more cringe-worthy "handmade" or "homespun" efforts.
Sure, some of these creative efforts may have been less aesthetically pleasing or polished in appearance. But they revealed something more valuable than artistic talent or an eye for merchandising.
A handcrafted display or game showed me that the folks in these locations were actually engaged. They were personally invested in trying to get themselves noticed and to interact with customers. They seemed to understand that their personal efforts make the difference between their branches and other ones.
From their perspective, marketing wasn't a department housed at their bank's main office. Bankers could get involved with marketing on a personal level in the branch. And these personalized if sometimes over-the-top branches were usually among the highest performers.
Management too often seems to think that these types of branches succeed in spite of their staff's strong personalities. I'd suggest that these branches' success is actually driven by their staff's proclivity to personalize their marketing efforts — at least a little.
I totally understand marketing directors' concerns about keeping their bank branches' image tightly controlled and professional, even if some fears seem overblown. I like to suggest that if we can trust people with the keys to the vault, maybe we can trust them with a dry erase board.
Moreover, allowing bankers to be personally involved in marketing and merchandising tends to make them more engaged as salespeople.
They take more personal ownership of the results generated by their branch and their teams. They observe firsthand what is or isn't working at their branch and respond accordingly.
Obviously, bankers' individual marketing abilities will vary. And some folks need more assistance and guidance than others. But many staffers possess invaluable creativity and insights. And management can often instantly replicate staffers' ideas in other branches.
Steve Jobs once said, "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."
He knew that if you want smart and creative people to be smart and creative … you need to allow them to be.
Banking today is a commoditized industry. Technology and price are not going to effectively differentiate us in the future. Our employees will. That's why hiring smart and engaging people is paramount — but giving them the freedom to demonstrate those traits is just as important.