I like to ask bankers if they are comfortable with their businesses’ futures hanging so heavily on how high their banks land on a web search. Unsurprisingly, not many of them are.

Similarly, many bankers do not believe their online and/or mass media marketing efforts are going to differentiate them in a sea of competition, either.

Homogeneity is a significant drawback in today's technology-driven banking world. With companies all leaping to adopt the same technical innovations, and individual customers and small businesses having access to dozens if not hundreds of financial institutions to meet their banking needs, the great challenge for a bank is to tout the strengths that make it special.

Stack of business cards
Handing out a business card is a productive goodwill gesture. We are hardwired to evaluate people, with mental columns for friend or foe. Friendly offers of assistance and making sure a person knows how to reach you put you in the positive columns. Adobe Stock

When I ask bankers what makes their institutions special — why customers with so many undifferentiated choices should choose their bank — they overwhelmingly give the same answer, or some version of it: “Our people.”

But does that mean then that the bank has a marketing strategy to make those people more prominent to customers? Not exactly.

In the digital age, I am ever the believer that one-on-one human interactions, and connections, between banker and customers are crucial to differentiating an institution from the rest of the pack. However, if bankers are really viewing their people as what sets them apart, what are they doing to identify them to potential customers? How would I know their names, where they work, what they do or how they may be able to help me? If they are the most differentiating asset, how will I even learn they are part of your team?

During a recent session with a group of new bankers, I suggested that one of the more useful instruments for advancing their careers is found in their pockets but not on their smartphones: business cards.

Some immediately smiled at the idea. Others seemed dismissive of the notion that business cards were still relevant.

I continued, “I know. I get it. We’re told that the future of banking is all about technology. Surely, we won’t still be handing out little squares of paper with our names on them, right?”

Everything from newspapers to instruction manuals has gone digital. Everyone you know is likely a Google search away. I can take out my smartphone, and with just a few taps, have the locations and contact information of every bank within 100 miles of me.

With that view, and as with many things we come to take for granted, the practice of regularly giving existing and potential customers our business cards seems to have largely disappeared at many organizations. When I ask managers and front-line bankers about when was the last time they gave out one of their business cards to a local business or a new neighbor or any new acquaintance they’ve made out in their communities, I often hear sheepish responses. So I politely remind them that they should never overestimate the lasting impression they make on people. However, even folks they make positive first impressions on tend to forget their name and their bank’s names by the next day, and it’s hard to Google or find someone on LinkedIn using “that nice banker I met at the ballpark a few weeks ago” as the search term.

Other folks say they worry that giving people their business cards feels like a sales pitch. When I hear that I politely joke that if that is the case they are doing it wrong.

When done properly, handing someone your business card is a productive goodwill gesture. We humans are hardwired to continually evaluate the people and places in our lives. We have mental columns for friend or foe, helpful or harmful, safe or dangerous. Friendly conversations, offers of assistance and making sure a person knows how to reach you put you in the positive columns.

Banking is also at its core a hands-on, personal business. There are thousands of people pitching themselves and their companies online to the new contacts you have made. But how many of your competitors have personally shook potential customers’ hands and given them their business cards?

Yes, our teams are becoming the human interfaces of increasingly digital operations. The manners in which we deliver products and services continue to evolve. However, the futures of banks and individual bankers remain tied to their abilities to grow their customer bases. The more productive and growth-minded of them will continue to be folks who shake more hands, ask more questions, offer more assistance and, yes, hand out more business cards than their competition.

The practice of handing out business cards is not about nostalgia. It is about our future.

Dave Martin

Dave Martin

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

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