Better Questions for Business Bankers

By Jack Hubbard

I had the television on while having breakfast on a recent Saturday morning. The commentator was interviewing the chancellor of a major university about the travel ban instituted by President Trump.

“We have 17,000 [affected]students studying in the United States, more than 12,000 alone from Iran,” the commentator noted.

And now for his question:

“Who would we rather the Iranians get their news and information from…their Supreme Leader or those 12,000 who come here and study and go home and spread the word about the United States?”

That’s when my spoon dropped to the floor. (Luckily Taylor the beagle, my Director of Barketing, was there to clean up the mess.)

Let me think about that for a nanosecond. I’ll take the students for $200 Alex. This ludicrous use of valuable airtime on a major cable network got me to thinking about some of the great interviewers I’ve experienced in my life. It also brought back some of the nail on blackboard questions I hear bankers ask when I have accompanied them on joint calls or listened to their telephone conversations.

How is a business banker like a reporter?

The first real news reporter I recall hearing was Edward R. Morrow. Morrow joined CBS radio in 1935. His fame skyrocketed during World War II as a reporter in London. In 1951 after a stellar radio career, Morrow launched his television show See It Now. Morrow had a big ego, but he put it aside on air and made the guest the focus by asking challenging questions that forced the interviewee to think.

Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Mike Wallace, and Barbara Walters are several others who understood that the guest had the answers and the reporter had the questions. Go back and watch some clips of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Phil Donahue, Tom Snyder, and more recently David Letterman. My current favorite interviewer is Charlie Rose. Just like a good reporter, a smart business banker asks the kind of questions that elicit thoughtful, honest, and sometimes surprising answers.

Unfortunately, today most so-called journalists are nothing more than shills for a political party, a personal cause, or some other agenda. Instead of going after real answers, they try to guide their subjects to a preconceived conclusion.

Sometimes we’re no better.

One of the greatest assets reporters have is also their greatest challenge…experience. They have done this so many times that their questions become commonplace, mundane. I see that with business bankers too. I was preparing for a call recently with a 20-year branch manager in an outstanding business market. When I inquired about some of the questions she would be asking, here are the first three that came out of her mouth:

  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What do you like about your relationship with your bank?
  • What could be improved about that relationship?

I wanted to jump out the office window. Fortunately we were on the first floor so the damage would have been minimal. “How likely is it that you ask those questions on every prospect call?” I asked. “Every time,” she responded proudly, “and the prospects love them.”

Not wanting to burst her bubble by saying the 1980s called and they want their questions back, I instead made a couple of suggestions she might consider.

  • If you could start your business all over again knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
  • What’s one thing you would do here if you knew you wouldn’t fail?
  • How do you stay current on trends and best practices in your industry?
  • What does the concept of trusted advisor mean to you and who are yours?
  • Talk about your sales process and how it is working for you.

“Those are interesting but they have nothing to do with our bank and what I want to sell,” she said (with a bit of a tone). Interesting indeed…to the potential buyer. She did indicate she was willing to try them as long as I would give her the slack to ask the oldies but goodies. She never got to her questions. The business owner was enthralled. “No banker has ever asked me these questions,” he said. “Finally, a banker that cares about me more than about selling loans.”

I don’t know where this relationship might go in the future, but the banker does have a second appointment, and that’s a victory. Last year bankers made it to a second call with a prospect only about 17% of the time.

A roadmap to great questions.

We can’t control what reporters ask. But we can influence our banker queries. Here are three possible ways to help your associates improve the interview process in the field and on the phone.

1. Go back to the manual. It is likely your bankers have been through one or more training programs. Before doing an upcoming one-on-one, ask each to go back to the manual (that thing that is collecting dust on their credenza) and find five questions they don’t often or ever ask and be ready to talk about how they can interweave them into their upcoming conversations with clients and prospects. If the manual doesn’t have those practical examples, you need to engage with a different training company.

2. Click on Amazon. In the past few years there have been some amazing books written about sales. While most don’t specifically focus on questions, there are some excellent ones spread throughout the pages of each of these:

  • Insight Selling, by Mike Schultz and John Doerr
  • The Challenger Sale, by Matt Dixon and Brent Adamson
  • Beyond the Sales Process, by Dave Stein and Steve Andersen

3. Ask what no other banker will ask. If you are a manager and your bankers are asking humdrum questions, look in the mirror first. You are responsible for providing tools and coaching so that when your people are out with entrepreneurs, you are confident there is a high likelihood a great conversation will occur. Don’t leave this to chance.

At your next skill builder (titled Questions No Other Banker Will Ask) have bankers bring the pre-boarded questions they planned to ask on their past three calls. Have each banker circle the top three questions from their list that they believe were different from what other bankers might ask. Put them into teams of three and have them discuss the questions they individually selected. Each team creates a final list of five great questions and those lists are put on a flip chart. The entire team finalizes the top five. Each banker commits to asking these questions sometime during each of their calls the current week.

At the pipeline meeting the following Monday (meetings should be done on Monday since it is the worst day statistically to make a call) the manager asks the bankers how the CFO, CEO, etc. reacted to the questions and what information they received as a result of asking them. Some will work, some will fall flat. They idea is to get bankers in the mindset that run-of-the-mill questions won’t help them help the business and they certainly won’t help them get back in the door for another conversation.

I also think it’s fun to have them watch a news or talk show and have them count the number of open versus closed questions that the hosts ask as well as some of the best and worst questions that came out of their mouth.

And that Iranian student question? How about something like:

“When the 12,000 Iranian student return to their country, how do you want them to report on their experience at our universities, and what is it you would want them to say about America?”

Was that so difficult?

Jack Hubbard is chairman and chief experience officer at St. Meyer & Hubbard, Inc. This year he returns for his 32nd year as an award-winning faculty member of the ABA Bank Marketing School and his 17th year as an instructor for ABA’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking. He is a popular teacher at Graduate School of Banking in Madison, WI and Southwest Graduate School of Banking, as well as the North Carolina School of Banking, the Perry School of Banking at Michigan State University, and the Pennsylvania Bankers Association Commercial Banking School. In addition to publishing regularly with industry periodicals, Hubbard is co-author of the bestselling book, Conversations with Prospects. He also serves on the board of directors of St. Charles Bank & Trust. Email: [email protected]. Twitter. LinkedIn.