A community banker friend of mine was recently bemoaning his institution's disappointing sales and service culture. His production numbers were not where he thought they should be, he told me, and he wondered if the bank's employees had let slip away the bank's growth culture.

I suggested that production being down compared to past years did not necessarily mean his teams were putting forth less effort or were any less dedicated. Rather, it could be tied to an industrywide trend: Branch transactions are down and there are fewer face-to-face interactions between our staff and customers.

Besides broader economic issues facing the banking industry, the decline in business at physical branches as new mobile channels emerge is an equally substantive challenge.

My friend's bank is no exception. Customer attrition rates have not grown over the past few years at his institution. However, foot traffic and transactions in his branches have fallen. So it is not evident that his people are doing their jobs any less diligently than before.

Still, if we shrug our shoulders and say that as soon as the economy turns around branch traffic and transactions will rebound, we are likely locking in underperformance even when economic conditions eventually improve.

Competition is never static. It's like distance running. Difficult market conditions tend to put space between the leaders and the rest of the pack. With the ground flat and wind at your back, many look like champions. But when faced with headwinds and uphill climbs, you find out who the prepared, determined and strongest competitors are. In banking, those are the more proactive and efficient operators who will have leads when conditions become favorable again.

Even though customer service and branch experiences delivered by our teams are better than they have ever been, the number of conversations we are able to have with existing and potential customers within the walls of our branches continues to fall. That's an undeniable industry phenomenon.

Aware of that fact, if banks are not working diligently to make their teams engage customers outside of their branches, they will be at a disadvantage.

To a certain extent, most community banks trying to compete with the megabanks and nonbank technology firms know that traditional marketing, pricing and technology are not sufficient. Mobile channels and consolidation blur the lines on what defines a market or a region. Most bankers realize these games are not going to be played on their home field.

Having in-store banking as part of my DNA, I have long preached that the most powerful differentiator for any branch is its moving parts, otherwise known as its staff.

To be sure, bankers can still distinguish themselves inside the branch. Just as disengaged employees can make even a wonderfully designed branch feel like a storage closet, engaged employees can make a storage closet-looking branch seem appealing.

But even our best employees are not being fully utilized to our advantage if their face-to-face contact with customers and potential customers falls each year.

To counteract that, events and promotions to generate branch awareness and visits are helpful. Yet we need to go further than that and create cultures in which our teams understand that a bank's network is no longer defined only by where its branches are. It is increasingly defined by where its bankers are.

That does not mean our bankers become door-to-door salespeople. But a growth culture that includes meeting new folks in our communities, visiting new businesses and handing out business cards only happens when the idea is discussed and encouraged.

If the strengths of your organization are your people and your culture, you need to find every way possible to put those people and that culture in contact with existing and prospective customers.

Our teams are not simply sellers of our products. They are our most important product. It's time to make part of your marketing plan getting your most important product out into your communities more than the competition does.