Pick Me! Pick Me!

By Sean C. Payant, PhD

Marketing’s job is to build opportunities. The bank employee’s job is to capture the sale. If these two efforts are not coordinated carefully, the bank’s customer experience will suffer.

The marketing process is a little like the dreaded team selection in high school gym class. Two captains are appointed, and they take turns picking their team from the kids on the sideline. “Pick me! Pick me,” some students plead. Others stand quietly, just hoping to be noticed. No one wants to be picked last.

As an industry, we spend vast amounts of money, not to mention time and internal resources, for the purpose of marketing our banks—to get prospects to choose us. A 2013 study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, called Navigating the Market, reported that financial institutions and other financial service providers spent approximately $17 billion in awareness advertising and direct marketing in 2012.

We brand. We market. We craft creative campaigns and blanket with direct advertising. We create television and radio spots. We orchestrate social media initiatives. The role of the marketing professional is to get consumers—the team captains—to pick our bank first. We are the kids standing in line saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”

What happens when you get picked?

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: You walk into the restaurant and read the specials board while you wait to be seated. Later, when your server approaches the table, you ask about the daily specials. The server’s response: “I just got here,” or “Let me check.” The specials board, aka “marketing,” did its job. It got you to ask questions and initiate a conversation, but the server didn’t have answers. This is a major failure.

Our banks are no different. Experience has taught us that targeted, narrowly cast marketing gets people in a bank’s doors. But, your team must be equipped to respond appropriately. Far too often, frontline employees are the last to know about our marketing initiatives, let alone equipped to respond effectively when asked about our products and services.

When marketing gets you picked, it unfortunately doesn’t always mean you make the team. Making the team requires an organization-wide effort to capitalize on every opportunity. Marketing’s job is to create opportunities. The bank employee’s job is to capture the sale. If these two purposes aren’t aligned, our efforts don’t just fall short, they can cause lasting damage.

With social media, the repercussions of an unprepared employee’s response to a consumer can be severe. With consumers holding more and more control over your brand message as they post and tweet, the customer experience is paramount. Simply put, unless there is alignment between marketing and execution, much of the marketing department’s effort is in vain.

How do we build alignment?

For marketing initiatives to truly succeed, an organization must commit to on-going education. Every employee must be prepared to respond appropriately to opportunities. In any situation, employees must have one of two types of expertise:

  1. Knowledge regarding the specific product or service being discussed, or
  2. The knowledge and skill to make a professional referral to the expert.

Building true alignment between marketing and execution depends on four factors:

–Product knowledge.

–Customer service.




Product knowledge

With any marketing initiative, the bank’s employees must understand the offer and the fulfillment process. This goes beyond just providing a marketing piece or a digital file of a television or radio clip. It should include product training:

–What is the product?

–How does it work?

–Who is the target audience?

–Why would a customer want this product, or specifically, how does it make the customer’s life better?

–How does one clearly ask for the sale?

It is important to understand that product knowledge training is not a “one and done” event. Our experience training and mystery-shopping financial institution employees has taught us that product knowledge is more of a “use-it-or-lose-it” phenomenon. If you don’t have an on-going training plan, your team members will quickly lose essential knowledge. In fact, with inadequate product knowledge, employees will miss buying clues, or even ignore them, not wanting to look uninformed.

Furthermore, your products must be something that your employees not merely understand, but are proud to offer to customers.

Far too often we design our products from a banker’s perspective instead of from the customer’s perspective. Since demand deposit accounts are the gateway product to the customer relationship more than 65 percent of the time, bankers must carefully evaluate their retail and business checking products. Take off your banker’s hat and ask yourself, “Would I want these?” If the answer is, “No,” you are asking good bankers to sell bad product, and you are undermining your own marketing efforts at the same time.

The primary goal of most frontline bankers is to do right by the customers they serve. If you want a true assessment of your bank’s products, ask your frontline what they think. Ask them whether they think the products are good for their customers. Ask if they are proud to offer them. Give your front line the opportunity to respond anonymously to a short electronic survey—they will be happy to share their opinions of your bank’s checking products if you ask.

Customer service

Ask bank executives why consumers should pick their bank and the response is always something like, “Our service is wonderful.” In reality, it’s not. As bankers, we put “ordinary” on a pedestal every day and try and convince ourselves and our customers that it’s actually “extraordinary.” I like to say that, “Our industry gives lip service to customer service.” For the most part, our customer service standards are unclear when interacting with most customers.

It’s just as important to remember that service is not the reason people select your financial institution. Consumers have never experienced your service unless they have been in your branch or spoken to you by phone. Since every bank claims to have the best service, most consumers simply tune out those marketing messages.

Service only drives selection when it is at such a high level that it results in referrals from existing customers. Most consumers pick you for a random reason—a location that happens to be close to where they live or work, or a marketing initiative happened to catch them when they had a product or service need or were simply ready to make a change.

Given this dynamic, it is crucial that consumers who pick your bank have an experience that complements your marketing efforts. Most organizations do very little to craft the customer experience. Employees are simply told, “Provide great customer service.” But, they are never shown what is actually expected of them beyond a few basic behaviors.

Your employees are an extension of your brand. I would actually argue that, in reality, they are your brand. Your employees need to know exactly what great service looks like at your institution:

  1. What do we do in greeting? Smile, make good eye contact, give friendly and warm greeting, stand if seated, introduce themselves, learn customer names, shake hands, clarify needs.
  2. What do we do during the interaction? Use customer names, ask appropriate questions, provide solutions, ask for the business.
  3. What do we do in closing? Smile, make good eye contact, use customer names, say thank you, offer future assistance.

Beyond those basic behaviors, there is another level of customer service excellence. Every employee should ask himself or herself, “What can I do so that, when this customer leaves, he or she feels special?” This extra effort is what takes service beyond simply going through the motions and creates a truly extraordinary customer experience—the kind that people will want to tell others about.

Unless you have clear service expectations that are regularly trained, coached and modeled, it is unlikely your team is consistently providing the level of service necessary to complement your bank’s marketing efforts. Then again, even if you do have clear service expectations, how do you really know that they are being reliably executed? It starts with accountability.


Accountability is really about measuring and reporting. The most successful organizations establish clear service standards and back them with specific customer acquisition goals.

With regard to service expectations, it is essential that your bank inspects what you expect. One of the best ways to build accountability and determine whether your employees are consistently providing extraordinary customer service is to mystery shop your locations, in person and by telephone.

In order to build alignment between marketing and execution, you must quantify the customer experience. How often are employees performing the expected customer service behaviors? In addition to those quantitative measures, the qualitative experience needs to be evaluated as well. Do customers consistently feel welcomed, reassured and significant when interacting with your employees? Stanley Marcus, the former president and CEO of Neiman-Marcus, said, “The dollar bills the customer gets from tellers in four banks are the same. What is different are the tellers.” Banking is retail. Once again, your employees are your brand.

As the accompanying chart illustrates, an additional benefit of training and mystery shopping is that it can drive improvement to your marketing results. Data from our company’s clients shows financial institutions that mystery shop and retrain employees at least annually experience a 19 percent lift in openings when compared to bank clients that neither shop nor train.

Together, those tools are the most powerful; however, even using only one can have benefits. Mystery shopping or training improves openings by 9 percent when compared to bank clients that don’t do either. When employees know you are measuring something, they will work to achieve it. However, without clear expectations, training and accountability, the likelihood of success is haphazard at best. Our firm’s mystery shopping of untrained bankers consistently reveals a generic customer experience with little to no sense of urgency about capturing the new customer business.

With regard to customer acquisition goals, it is imperative that employees know what they need to accomplish. If you are running a home-equity line promotion, bank employees should have clear referral goals at the branch level. Since demand deposit account customer acquisition is crucial to growing your institution, it is essential that your team members know exactly how many retail and business customers they need to add per branch daily, weekly, monthly and annually. When employees are properly equipped, know what they need to achieve and are held accountable, results follow.

The average community bank branch adds approximately 175 retail and business accounts per year—and closes just as many. The result: net-zero growth. Given marketing support, regular training, acquisition goals and accountability, that opening number can more than double.


Nothing is as controversial in banking as the incentive discussion. What should we call incentives? How should we construct the program? How should we measure them? Who is eligible to receive them? What qualifies as a “real” referral? And so forth. The truth is we make the incentive process entirely too complicated. We’re looking for a one-size-fits-all approach that will last for the next 10 years. Unfortunately, that is unrealistic on all accounts.

Incentives should be for a defined period, ideally no more than three to six months. They should be tied to achieving a previously defined goal. When incentives are effective, they are about celebrations of accomplishments. In addition, the most effective incentives are group-based rather than individually based. Individual incentives change the focus of the employee/customer relationship. When employees are incented for bill pay or e-statement take rates, it becomes about them rather than the customer. The motivation moves from doing the right thing for the customer, to doing something for personal gain. When we promote products and services, it should be for the sole purpose of teaching customers how these products will enhance their lives, not to earn ourselves a $2, $3 or $5 incentive.

Researchers have consistently shown that intrinsic motivation is more powerful and more sustainable than extrinsic motivation. For example, “I provide extraordinary customer service because I feel valued by my organization and I enjoy making people feel valued.” Compare that to, “I do these things because I get in trouble when I don’t.” One is derived from an attitude of service. The other is to avoid a punishment. It has been shown that intrinsic motivation might better be encouraged by genuine recognition from the bank’s leadership for a job well-done, rather than by some token financial incentive. Sadly, it has been my experience that many executives don’t seem to make recognizing their people’s accomplishments a priority.

When constructing meaningful incentives, it is important to bring employees together to accomplish team goals. For example, “During this week, we need to add this many new customers to our bank family at our branch, and we need to make this many referrals to the mortgage lending department. When we achieve our first week’s goal, we all earn a branch lunch. When we achieve our two-month goal, we all earn a half-day of paid time off.”

Building alignment between marketing and execution requires that marketing initiatives are paired with meaningful branch and department incentives. When the two are closely aligned, remarkable things happen.

Where do we go from here?

As captains pick their teams, we all want to be picked first. But regardless of the draft order, it is essential that your marketing and execution are aligned so you always make the team. Without a clear plan that includes product knowledge training, customer service standards and training, accountability and meaningful incentive planning, your organization may well be left on the sidelines.


Sean C. Payant, Ph.D., is senior executive vice president of consulting services at Haberfeld Associates, a customer acquisition marketing and profitability company in Lincoln, Neb. Email: [email protected].