Most reasonable customers do not expect front-line employees to know the most trivial details about what their employer offers. But customers do expect employees to know more than what they can glean from 10 minutes of online research before heading into a store.

The reality, however, is not always delivering on these expectations — particularly as industries like banking move increasingly online.

While people still predominantly prefer to walk into a branch to open an account, much of their research has already been done. Often, they are at a branch to confirm what they have researched, ask a few clarifying questions and get personal assistance to open an account. Too often, the employees interacting face to face with existing and potential customers are not sufficiently up to speed on information readily available to anyone doing their research online.

In most cases, I do not blame the employees. Competent branch workers will do their jobs and they’ll stay informed about whatever their leaders ask them. Yet companies too frequently allow employee knowledge gaps to build.

This is a general management problem, not a banking-specific problem.

Even rather sophisticated companies can fall prey to these gaps. Recently, my family was ready to make three smartphone upgrades. After doing a bit of research online, my wife found the phones they wanted, at the price she wanted, with a one-year contract.

From the internet, we learned those phones were in stock at a local store. So we headed in to give some salesperson an easy sale. The young man who greeted us was upbeat and helpful. After hearing what we wanted, he enthusiastically pulled out his tablet to complete our sale. A moment later, he told us that the company only offered two-year contracts for the plan we wanted. My wife knew this was wrong and told him so.

He checked with his manager and was told, no, the company only offered the rates we asked for with two-year plans. My wife showed him a screenshot on her phone of the plan she found on its website. He checked with his manager again and returned to tell us the store couldn’t find that deal on the company’s system.

Annoyed, we thanked him for his time and returned home having wasted an hour of our day. Then my wife went online where she ordered the phones with the one-year plan for the rate she wanted — and vowed never to waste her time in the company’s stores again.

In banking, this challenge is on the rise — not necessarily because the external and internal sites aren’t matching up, but because the job of knowing what the company offers is getting more complex.

I’ve joked before with bankers in my age bracket that it was once pretty simple to keep up with everything our banks offered. If marketing sent us the occasional newspaper ad or faxed us the weekly interest rates sheet, we were reasonably ready for the questions that people would ask on the phone or in person.

Sure, the number of products and services we offer compared to the pre-internet days is greater. The flexibility and reach of online marketing also makes staying abreast of everything customers are seeing a greater challenge as well.

And yet, each of our employees have the same constantly updating products and services menu on the smartphones in their hands. I kid bankers that with all of the screen time most of us spend on our phones, checking in on our own app and website every other day or so might not be the worst use of our time. Employees can stay up to speed with customers by pulling out a smartphone regularly to familiarize themselves with the bank’s website.

While that seems like a stunningly obvious thing to do, I am frequently amazed at how many front-line bankers admit to me that they seldom visit their employers’ websites or use their own banks’ apps. Many don’t make a practice of clicking on links their institutions promote through social media. In most cases, it’s simply not something they have been encouraged to do.

At a minimum, branch managers ought to shop their own banks online on a weekly basis with the eye of a customer: Is there anything they were unaware of? Would they be unsure about where or how to find answers to questions they could reasonably expect from a customer based on the information they see?

If they answer yes to either question, chances are good their team would as well. These easily addressable knowledge gaps are a recipe for customer discontent. Bank executives need to make it a priority for teams to avoid and/or address these areas of confusion before they happen with customers.

Dave Martin

Dave Martin

Dave Martin is the founder of the retail bank performance company bankmechanics.

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