Financial institutions have a hard time gaining a sustainable competitive advantage in business and commercial banking. Loan demand from small- and mid-sized companies is low to moderate, while banks that attempt to distinguish themselves with reduced prices and new product capabilities find that their rivals quickly match their every move.

In the all-out war for market share, many banks have focused their efforts on developing relationship managers who are capable of creating deeper bonds with clients. This client-focused relationship manager consults with customers and helps them improve their businesses by providing them with products and a range of services such as cash flow optimization, payments consulting, balance sheet management and even referrals to outside services like accountants, lawyers and suppliers.

When done right, this approach can generate impressive results. However, many banks that try to employ it fall prey to one mistake. They focus on training front-line relationship managers on the new techniques without giving the same level of coaching and support to sales or segment managers.

Most sales managers today learned their craft in a very different environment. Credit sales were the name of the game, and generating fee income was a close second. Based on that experience, sales managers are sometimes reluctant to buy into the new approach. All too often, they are willing to let their direct reports slip on relationship-building steps in the name of quarterly numbers. For this reason, banks looking to change the way their salespeople and relationship managers work must link relationship manager training with sales manager training and new processes, systems and infrastructure.

One important way to ensure that sales management resists the temptation to back off on consultative sales is to create high visibility around account management activities. Customer relationship management systems are a great way to do this. These systems must be designed to track interactions with clients so that both sales and individual relationship managers are accountable for progress on efforts to build trust and rapport with clients. Among the requirements banks must place on sales managers are the creation of a simple account plan for key clients that includes specific objectives (i.e., a certain number of in-person meetings) and the tracking of performance against those plans.

However, tracking quantitative measures like the number of calls between bank employees and customers is not enough. Sales managers shouldn't just know that a relationship manager talked to Company X; they should also know what the relationship manager was talking to Company X about. Managers must be responsible for providing relationship managers with coaching on consultative approaches and helping them employ bank products and services to solve client business problems.

In addition to the increased visibility afforded by a customer relationship management system, sales managers can play an important role in building an infrastructure to support the consultative approach. They can be an important force in positioning the relationship manager as an expert in the eyes of the customer, working with marketing staffers to broadcast client success stories and compare the results of M&A deals with those of competitors.

As banks try to achieve a competitive advantage by training sales staff and relationship managers to help their business clients solve problems, they must be on guard against regional managers too quick to fall back on old habits and business heads and sector leaders whose skepticism can undermine these initiatives. Senior executives must make improving sales management a key priority in order to overcome the organizational inertia that can stifle much-needed changes in relationship manager behavior.

Duncan Banfield consults with Greenwich Associates commercial banking clients. Before joining Greenwich Associates in 2011, Duncan was vice president of market analytics for General Electric Capital Americas, where he developed and implemented market and competitive analyses to support strategic growth initiatives for the commercial financing business.