In our increasingly detached world, where folks spend more time staring at little screens in their hands than interacting with people, the things that create real customer relationships are as simple as ever.
Consider Leo, my family's favorite waiter. The fact that we even have a favorite waiter reminds me of what an exceptional job this young man does in building relationships with customers.
Most of Leo's approaches and philosophies are as applicable to branch bankers as they are to a restaurant.
The restaurant Leo works in isn't the kind with a Maître D or a wine list where three digit lunch bills foster "relationships." No, this place is a family-style "icehouse and grill" that even has a sandbox on the patio (that my kids have thankfully outgrown).
It's not surprising to have the entire wait staff turnover twice a year at these type restaurants. You usually won't build relationships with these folks. But Leo has been a constant for three plus years.
I initially didn't know what to make of him. He's a bear of a guy who wears a terrycloth headband and wristbands. At first, I thought it must have been a sports-theme costume or something the restaurant was promoting.
That was until I noticed no one else wore those things. No, this "style" was his alone.
Even on visits in which we didn’t have Leo waiting our table, we usually ended up interacting with him. Unlike waiters who walked by staring at the floor or into space, he paid attention to people. He would say hello and make small talk on his way by. If my boys were wearing a sports uniform, he'd always ask about their game.
Some waiters barely talk to their own customers. Leo acted like anyone walking in the door was his customer, whether or not he was the guy actually serving you that day.
We eventually developed hand signals to make sure we would sit at one of Leo's tables. As we'd walk in, we'd make eye contact, and he'd point to whatever open tables were his.
Leo always remembers the last conversation you had with him. He ended up regularly discussing fantasy football teams with my kids. When one of my sons on a recent Sunday asked, "I wonder how Mr. Leo's team did this week," I had to marvel at the kind of connections this young man makes.
On more than one occasion, I've suggested to my wife that the restaurant should film and interview Leo to show to new employees in orientation. For that matter, the things that make him stand out are applicable to many businesses.
Over the months, I began asking him questions about his job and why he, frankly, seemed better at it than most. At first, he just thought I was complimenting him. But he eventually saw I was actually curious, and we'd discuss the restaurant business and customer service issues regularly.
On one visit, he marveled at people who applied for a job, got a job, and then did nothing but constantly complain about the job they had just about begged to get. I shook my head and told him that wasn't a waiter phenomenon. I've seen it more times than I can remember in my own line of work.
Leo shared that he figures it takes the same amount of time and almost as much effort to be terrible at his job. But keeping a positive attitude and interacting with people makes his job more fun, as well as more profitable. He smiled, "Empty tables don't pay your electricity bill."
When I once kidded him about always asking my wife if she remembered her coupons, he laughed and said, "Hey, this place wouldn’t stay open without the regulars who use those coupons! My best customers always have coupons in their wallets."
Truth-be-told, Leo's coupon-collecting interactions with my wife locked her in as a customer. While some waiters seem bothered by coupons, Leo seemed to enjoy doing the math with my wife to figure out which ones were worth more.
She grew to trust him and always felt like he was looking out for her. And I figure we came to give him the chance to do that about 30 times this year alone.
Leo recently told us that he is going to be hanging up his note pad and going to work for a car dealership When he asked if I had any advice for his new job selling cars, I shook his hand and said, "Don't let them change you. Keep your same outlook and approach, and you'll do great." I also threw in, "but you might reconsider the headband." (You can joke like that with a friend.)
The moral of this story for retail bankers: Treat each person walking into or up to your branch as your own customer and make sure he is welcomed. Interact and chat with folks with an eye toward actually learning about things that are important to them. Look for chances to show you appreciate their business and are always looking out for their best interests.
You'll eat the competition's lunch.
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 Dave.Martin@ncbs.com