One of my mantras over the past few years has been that as our industry becomes more technology-driven and our products and services more commoditized, our people become more important, not less.
We won't differentiate with technology. It will continue to get better, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. It's also doubtful that any bank will be able to establish and defend a "low price leader" advantage. A bank president I once worked for said it well: "If your main value proposition is being the cheapest provider, you're always at the mercy of your most desperate or foolish competitor."
One of my favorite questions to ask branch managers and frontline employee groups is, "If I can bank with any of 100 different banks and really not miss a beat, why would I choose you?"
Often, some start to mention branch locations or products. But it usually doesn't take long to hear the answer I'm looking for: "You'd choose to bank with my bank because of me. I'm what you can't get at other banks."
Our people have been a major differentiator in the past. They may be our only real differentiator in the future.
That said, I'm not arguing that we will need more — or even as many — employees in the future as we currently have. I believe the opposite is assuredly true. Recent profit struggles aside, when the primary delivery methods of an industry's products become "self-service," it's hard not to foresee a concomitant reduction in total employees.
Some executives find the topic to be discouraging. Others tend to become somewhat argumentative and feel that talk of future employee reductions suggests a failure of management.
I suggest that a real failure in management would be to act like the future will look like the past- or even the present. Accepting that your industry is evolving and requires change is not an indictment on past managerial decisions. Smart managers make decisions based on the current facts and situations at hand.
When those facts and situations change, its naïve to think that the way we've always done things will be a winning strategy. Making prudent changes and adjustments when your industry evolves is not a negative reflection on past decisions and strategies. It's simply what responsive managers need to do.
No manager likes to think of the good people they currently have on their teams and imagine them being made expendable in the future. But I'd suggest that too few are doing one of the most basic things to at least help stave off that possibility.
I read a comment recently that hit home. An educator stated that most students today are being trained for jobs that don't exist yet. That comment has prompted me to begin asking executives to consider what jobs we are preparing our current employees for. I would respectfully propose that any employee not being given sales and product knowledge training and refreshers is being exposed to increased career risk.
Many hear that and immediately think of our traditional teller positions. And sure, giving our tellers expanded roles and "sales" responsibilities is becoming the norm.
But I've begun proposing to executives that any and all folks in the organization — from senior executives to "back office" personnel to the custodial staff — be given sales and product knowledge training. Simply, if you are going to be in banking in the future, you are going to be "in sales."
Some folks immediately think, "Of what use is sales and product knowledge training to a back office employee? They aren't in a sales position." I'd offer that everyone in an organization is in a sales position when given the proper focus and support.
As visits to our branches dwindle, the ability of all our employees to discuss and promote our institutions in our communities and away from our branches will be vital. While no one truly knows the future, the current sales model that has relatively small numbers of "experts" waiting in branches to interact with "shopping" customers is not likely to be the most viable.
Will we have to reevaluate our training programs and possibly even tweak our incentive plans? Yes. Will the usual suspects become apoplectic at the suggestion of rethinking job descriptions and employee development? Yes. (That may be reason enough to consider it.)
In an increasingly commoditized industry, the institution with the largest sales force has a competitive advantage. Is your sales force as large as it can be?
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief training consultant at NCBS, a SunTrust Banks Inc. subsidiary that offers consulting, training, design and construction services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at Dave.Martin@ncbs.com.