Except when empowered by exclusive legal standing — for instance, in marketing checking accounts — banks consistently fail in competing to sell financial services to consumers. The most dramatic example is wealth management, but there are many others.

When allowed to sell insurance products, banks sell very little. Independent mortgage brokers captured half the mortgage origination market — just as small, no-name investment advisory firms gained rapidly expanding share in the retirement market. Banks lend almost none of the money used to buy automobiles. The loans are made by auto dealers, and then quickly sold to banks and others. Among other unfortunate consequences are increased risk and the inability to set terms or innovate to provide greater value to consumers.

Meanwhile, banks spend more and more on branches and on servicing existing accounts, with declining profitability. We don't even capitalize on sales opportunities at the service points. Look at any on-line banking web site. Typically, individualized offers are not beamed to current customers, dialogue is not encouraged, and the goal is to finish as fast as possible.

When was the last time — or the first time — that a bank tried to sell anything at an ATM? Why not? It's often explained as "We couldn't agree on how to split the gain with the service provider." That's no explanation. A more accurate take would be "If I don't control it completely, then the heck with it." That applies not just to contacts through outsourcers or vendors, such as in bill pay, but to those controlled by different silos within the bank. A marketer told me "That web site doesn't belong to me." Translation: "Why should I care?"

The big box retailers have a formula: build stores, open the doors, advertise, offer bargains, and let people come and buy. Large banks, like many of these retailers, don't see the need for a "sales culture." But unfortunately, when you're selling intangibles they're not going to jump off the shelves. It is pathetic rather than amusing to see branches now referred to as "stores." They're anything but.

This is attempted self-hypnosis. But, we're not even providing the sales girl to say: "Those big purple polka dots look just wonderful on you, Ma'am." We're doing almost nothing to deliver a branch experience that resembles any kind of profitable "store" experience.

We've actually got a much better opportunity than the retailers. Although our markets, like theirs, are largely saturated, we've got continuing relationships with most of our customers. They depend on us, the relationships are sticky and involve frequent communication.

There have been attempts to capitalize on this opportunity. Tellers get added pay when they cross sell. Personal bankers have sales quotas. At Washington Mutual, every branch employee was supposed to sell vigorously. Sell, while taking a deposit?

Customer information files have been supplanted by customer relationship management-but has that increased revenue per customer? And we generate ever more of the statement messages that almost no one reads, and the freestanding letters that are seldom opened.

After the cheering stops, it's evident that no matter how you allocate the costs of all this, we're spending large and increasing amounts on service, quite a bit on impersonal marketing such as direct mail and telephone, which become constantly less efficient, and very little on actually selling to current customers, new customers or prospects.

A prospect in the branch or on the Internet who expresses interest in getting a credit card is unlikely to plug into a competent sales effort-and there is only a tiny probability that she'll actually end up getting a card. Even if cards are "free!"

Charles Schwab was for many years a successful and growing business without having any salesmen, and without offering any relationship to customers. It has become much more successful and larger as it has hired increasing numbers of salesmen who are compensated according to the volume of customer assets they acquire and hold. Schwab has branches, but the selling is done primarily on the telephone. Every customer, even the smallest, has access to a relationship.

Deeply engrained in the retail banker's heritage is the notion that while marketing may be a disagreeable necessity, selling to consumers (as opposed to business customers) is an avoidable indignity.

Can we make selling to consumers pay? We won't find out until we try. This requires having more people whose primary job is to sell one-on-one to new and current customers. We can afford them only by shifting expense away from unprofitable service activities.

Andrew Kahr is a principal in Credit Builders LLC, a financial product development company, and was the founding chief executive of First Deposit, later known as Providian. He can be reached at akahr@creditbuilders.us.com.