Newly named as the training director for a consulting company 20 years ago, I was quickly tasked with writing new sales training materials for bankers.

Instead of pretending my personal experiences and gut instincts were enough to complete the task on my own, I visited banks across the country to learn from folks who were actually successful in the sales tactics and principles on which I was about to write.

On those visits, I reviewed reams of sales training materials that were used in branches. It didn’t take long to notice the gaps between the “best practices” heralded by the most well-known training providers and the actual practices many top sales performers were using.

The front-line managers and employees who had succeeded in boosting branch sales had an approach to expanding customer relationships that clearly deviated from the probing-for-needs, sales-script-centric techniques many banks were training their personnel to use.

At the time, bank management expected their sales training programs to rely heavily on what I half-jokingly called “debating skills.”

Bank management, many of whom had little personal retail sales experiences, had learned this rather aggressive sales approach from the retail sales experts of the day. This mindset seemed to believe front-line employees would uncover what products and services customers “should” have by constantly “probing for needs.” Then, bankers were to make product and service suggestions, overcome any objections and lead those customers to the products and services they deciphered were right for them. In turn, customers would feel gratitude for the recommended suggestions.

In theory (and in role-play exercises in training), those strategies worked smoothly. In reality, they seemed to create anxiety in our bankers and distrust in our customers too often. Why? Not every interaction with a customer, or even potential customer, is appropriate for a sales conversation.

Rather than always pushing a product, a great many of the most successful folks in the field seemed far more focused on proactively networking. They got out into their lobbies, stores and communities more than their desk-tethered peers. They made new acquaintances and talked to them about any number of nonbanking subjects.

While they were obviously interested in bringing in new customers, these sales performers’ conversations often did not involve a single mention of a product or service that their company offered. Yet, these folks were the most successful “salespeople” in their organizations.

It occurred to me that these bankers were likely making new friends, regardless of whether they immediately earned new business. When I began describing it that way, more and more bankers I worked with seemed to breathe sighs of relief.

This approach seemed more honest and pressure-free to them. The customers they interacted with weren’t so quick to treat them as a salesperson with an agenda. It did not take an expert to see that a practice of having more meaningful conversations with existing and prospective customers produced superior results to treating face-to-face interactions as a sales debate competition.

Two-plus decades later — in the midst of industrywide culture introspection — the somewhat hokey-sounding strategy of focusing on making friends in our branch lobbies and in our communities is more appropriate than ever.

Have your teams strive to simply make as many new friends as they can. Quite likely, they will earn more than a few new customers in the process.

Dave Martin

Dave Martin

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

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