The 'Glengarry Glen Ross' Approach to Bank Sales Doesn't Work

Register now

A friend recently shared with my wife and me the news that she had resigned from her job. The fact that a smart and engaging person could no longer tolerate her work culture was troubling.

I was especially concerned that the culture she felt it necessary to get away from was found in a bank branch. She is a 10-year-plus banker who had been working for a very large bank.

Hearing how that branch's culture had deteriorated over the past year reminded me of all-too-familiar stories of sales cultures going toxic.

I would not suspect that this particular branch is necessarily an indicator of the bank's culture as a whole. I have long pointed out to those fond of criticizing big banks that I've witnessed many instances of "big bank" customer service levels and community involvement in individual markets being as good as or better than those of smaller competitors. Independent of the culture of a large bank's senior leadership, the culture of regional branches in different markets can be driven more by local management than by corporate management.

But in some banks the regional culture is more closely aligned with corporate culture than in others.

In the case of our friend, her boss had arrived a little more than a year earlier. The new manager's job, employees were told, was tied to sales numbers, meaning everyone else's jobs were too. Anything they were doing that was not related to selling additional products was getting in the way of their top priority — making their numbers.

Internal sales competitions dominated their branch meetings and seemed to be all that the manager cared about. Coworkers soon began distrusting each other, with accusations of "customer stealing" and cheating becoming common. Our friend said, "We all had a constant pit in our stomachs."

She recounted being reprimanded for spending too much time chatting with regular customers in the branch. Her manager felt that small talk with certain customers who were not likely to be strong cross-sales candidates was unproductive. She was told her time would be better spent telephoning higher-valued prospects.  

That type of environment is reminiscent of the 1990s film "Glengarry Glen Ross" about an aggressively sales-focused real estate office. I have observed varying degrees of that environment through the years in different operations. It looks cool when Alec Baldwin does it in a movie. In real life, well, not so much.

With few exceptions, bank products and services are ongoing relationships. The product is not some fixed item or static widget that you sell and walk away from.

I argue that our bankers and branches are not simply the sellers of products. In many ways, our branches and the experiences they deliver are large parts of the products themselves.

Yes, customers can handle just about every type of transaction imaginable without having to visit a bank branch. Yet, significant percentages still choose to do so.

No one can argue with the fact that many customers are not visiting branches as frequently as they did before. But most customers still do choose to visit branches. When they do, they are not there to see a branch. They are there to interact with a banker.

Whether it is for problem resolution, a complex transaction, an account opening, or just because they like dealing with humans as much as or more than technology, the customer-banker experience is the actual "product" they are choosing.

When you allow that product to be damaged by making banker interactions more bank-focused than customer-focused, that product is less appealing in the eyes of customers. Just as importantly, it is less appealing in the eyes of our bankers, too.

I am not Pollyannaish about the need for productive sales cultures within branches. Sales are the oxygen of any business.

Most professional branch bankers realize that growth is a top priority, and they don't shy away from that fact. In addition, positive sales coaching, training and other forms of support tend to be not just tolerated but also welcomed.

My experience has also been that our most competent bankers tend to be our most competent salespeople as well. They enjoy the advantage of having a better product to sell: themselves.

When people feel good about what they do, whom they help and the company that allows them the ability to do that, striving to grow their business is something they actually enjoy doing.

In a more competitive-than-ever industry, sales activities are absolutely an important part of bankers' jobs. However, if they come to feel that their leadership sees that as being their only job, it should not surprise anyone when many solid team members mentally or physically check out.

To keep a positive and productive sales culture, make sure your bankers are still allowed to feel like bankers.

Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc. He can be reached at and on Twitter @instorebank.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
M&A Branch deals Community banking