Picture this: a family is new in town and drives down Main Street checking out the local shops. Wow, they realize, there are a lot of banks! Which one should we choose? The one with the stylish green awning is aesthetically pleasing, while the bank with "America" in its name appeals to their patriotic sensibilities. The kids like the one with the horse and carriage logo.

Do consumers really base their bank choices on such arbitrary reasoning? For most people, the answer is yes. After all, it's hard to discern much of a difference between banks in today's world. I myself have been a strategic partner to banks for years, and I still can’t tell them apart.  

In my seminars with bankers, I ask them to write down three things that set them apart from their competitors. I inevitably get the same answers from everyone: "We provide great service, have multiple locations, and strive to develop personal relationships with our clients." I also get a couple, "We are very competitive with our rates." These kinds of differentiators are exactly what customers expect banks to say; they don't actually help customers distinguish between banks at all. Now, if one of the bankers said, "We have naked tellers," that would get customers' attention.

The beauty of being in banking is that the industry's products are still in high demand. The bad news is that using any one particular bank is discretionary. To attract new customers, banks need to take some drastic creative steps.

I suggest bankers start thinking about their banks like carrots. Two decades ago, carrots were sold in bunches with leaves attached, mud on the root and a wisp of thread hanging from the end. The average American consumed six pounds of carrots a year.

Today, Americans eat a whopping eleven pounds per year. How did our consumption habits transform so quickly? The carrot industry got the bright idea to cut the vegetables into two-inch pieces, ditch the leaves and rough outer skin and put them in a convenient plastic bag.

If this can be done with a mere vegetable, think what smart bankers could do. Companies like Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, Domino's and Apple have found similar success in mature industries by finding a way to deliver their product in a unique way.

The first, most crucial step is to find ways to communicate with customers and find out what needs they have that are not currently being served. A while back, I helped a bank in Michigan come up with different marketing strategies to help them gain and retain clients. I asked many of their business clients to attend a focus group to find out more about their goals and how the bank could help them. The consensus among participants was that they wished the bank could help them grow and manage their business. That’s different. And the bank had the resources, and the client base, to do it.

I also suggest that bankers today ask their employees, clients and outside entrepreneurs not how they can be the best but how they can stand out from the crowd. Customers already expect their banks to be the best. What they don't expect are three little pickles under the chicken breast — as per Chick-Fil-A's distinctive touch.

Businesses need to partially reinvent themselves each year to remain relevant. That's a challenge, but it's even riskier for banks to keep doing what they've always done. Take a quantum leap and try to change things up. The results will make a difference.

Bill Early is a speaker and consultant with BillEarlySpeaks.com. He is also the president of mortgage lender PlumDog Financial in Asheville, N.C.