During a meeting recently, I was asked an interesting question by a young lady who manages a dozen or so branches. She bought into the idea that most of our branch teams going forward will be smaller groups of "universal bankers," working in smaller facilities.
She wondered if that meant we'd be hiring a different kind of employee in the future. I joked, "Only if you currently hire anti-social malcontents." She laughed and said, "Well, it's not something we do on purpose."
After joking for a bit about some of the "happiness-challenged" co-workers many in the room had faced, I shared a story about the first time I had to hire an assistant manager many years ago.
As a rookie manager, I had never interviewed a person for a management position before. Thankfully, our Human Resources department sent me the resumes of only applicants who had already passed background checks. I simply had to choose the person from that group I thought would be the best fit for my team.
I had never received training on how to identify the right hire. I had been on the interviewee side of the equation often and was more comfortable being questioned than being the questioner.
In fact, I don't think the process of hiring good employees was ever covered during all my years in college. We were purportedly being prepared to run businesses one day. And we could read spreadsheets with the best of them. But not one word that I can remember was spoken about the process of finding and hiring good people.
So, for the most part, I was flying blind into this. But there was one piece of hiring advice I did remember reading. A business magazine had published an article that shared a hotel chain's advice for hiring great employees. This was a company widely praised for its customer satisfaction scores and strong financial results.
The advice was simple and straightforward enough for even a nervous rookie like me to grasp. They advised that when candidates are comparably qualified, hire the person who smiles the most.
Their belief was that no trait identified people who would most likely get along with teammates and thrive in customer service positions more than their penchant to smile.
While I was hiring a manager position, a large part of all of our jobs was customer-facing sales and service. Smiling seemed like a pretty useful trait. And the fact that I was replacing one of the dourest employees I'd ever worked with made the smile test seem like a pretty great idea.
The assistant manager I chose while relying on that strategy turned out to be an outstanding hire. On paper, her qualifications were somewhere in the middle of the pack. But she won the smile-and-act-happy-to-be-here contest by far and away.
Her attitude and work habits were a breath of fresh air to the team. And I noticed pretty quickly that there were more smiles on customers' faces as well. The "hire smilers" strategy became part of my approach going forward.
Over the years, I've had a few of my more cynical friends in management roll their eyes when I get on a soapbox about something as quaint as the impact that smiles have on customers. But I (pleasantly) argue with them that smiles are serious business.
First, I contend that customers tend to "hire smilers" as well. When comparable alternatives exist, people gravitate toward businesses that make them feel welcomed and appreciated.
Few gestures are more universally recognized as signs of welcoming, courtesy and appreciation than simply smiling at people.
As the banking industry has undeniably become more technology-driven, technology will not differentiate us. It gets better, faster, cheaper and more universal. And as banking relationships become less tethered to physical structures, these relationships hinge much more on how customers "feel" about us.
A second point I often make to my more cynical buddies is that their online banking peers and competition clearly recognize the power of smiling faces. Check out as many bank websites as you'd like. What percentage of the photos on these sites features smiling faces?
With an infinite assortment of images that can be used on bank websites, smiling faces are far and away the most utilized. That's not just coincidence.
Life and business can be plenty complicated. And yet, some things really aren't.
It's likely that the most powerful marketing messages your organization will send today aren't originating in the marketing department.
Our frontline employees are literally and figuratively the face of our organizations. Does your organization's face have a smile on it today?
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.