Secrets of Human Touch in Banking

By Kelli Nielsen

When it comes to bank sales, will the banker’s personal touch ever be replaced by digital technology? By nature, digital sales are impersonal. Will they therefore inspire less confidence, less loyalty? The robot who can make a customer feel secure and seen has not yet been built.

Throughout my 27 years in the banking industry, I have considered myself less a salesperson than a relationship builder, coach, connector and adviser. We bankers interact face-to-face as we help real people realize their financial goals. Whether it’s a first home or an expansion of their business to provide more jobs for the community, bankers are on the front line to ensure the customers’ goals are met.

While it’s true that buying a home over the internet and applying for loans may no longer require a banker’s assistance, most banks in North America, Europe and Australia do not make much use of sales technology. According to Avoka’s second annual State of Digital Sales in Banking report, banks in North America and Europe were still struggling to capitalize on digital opportunities. In fact, the ability to support digital account opening for wealth and business customers continued to lag—despite rising customer expectations.

Human sales aren’t the perfect alternative to digital marketing. Customers may shrink from a stereotypically slimy used-car salesman as much as they may from a non-human marketing bot. So what does it take to win customer confidence and find the right human/digital balance? What secret ingredients go into the sauce of successful sales? I asked six seasoned bankers—Cecelia Johnson, Dan Forrester, Andi Martin, Barrie MacDonald, Robert Osborn and Maxine Matteo—to reveal their recipes.

At the end of the day, I found they had these seven shared traits:

  • Participation in the community as a center of influence
  • A strong sense of authentic self
  • Ability to truly listen
  • Ability to communicate
  • Ability to embrace change
  • Willingness to learn
  • Arrive on time prepared

Here are some highlights from those interviews:

Cecilia Johnson, a credit administration SVP, emphasized that when it comes to personal attention, preparation is key: “If you are going to call on a business, you’d better be prepared with some factual highlights to share with prospective customers. They love to talk about their business and appreciate your interest.”

Dan Forrester, who is a community and government relations director, believes in cultivating relationships and sharing stories with his customers: “Technology is a tool, but it doesn’t replace the human experience. Over the past 50 years, banks still need deposits and to lend money to the community they serve. Banks must care and participate in their communities. I just need to have my name and my bank’s name mentioned as a consideration when a customer is making a choice. If my name was not mentioned—I didn’t do my job.”

Robert Osborn, a private banking and government relations EVP: “Think outside of the box and get engaged with customers. Show up for community events to show you’re always willing to help. Make time to have coffee, breakfast or lunch with your valued customers. Ask for referrals. Make an impression so customers remember you. If all else fails, it doesn’t hurt to leave a bottle of vodka on their front door signed by you. That is memorable.”

Andi Martin, retired VP in commercial banking: “When a client walks through the doors of any bank, they are expecting to be respected and be able to trust those who are entrusted with the handling of their financial affairs. Listen to your clients, show interest and empathy for their particular situation and work with them to meet the financial objectives that they desire.”

Barrie Macdonald, retired EVP and managing director: “Banking is a people business with technology that serves as a tool. Stay adaptable on this ever-changing competitive landscape. Don’t be afraid to ask for the business. If you don’t someone else will.”

Maxine Matteo, who is a chief risk and administrative officer, primarily focusing on regulatory risk and compliance: “Be your authentic self. Find that personal connection and establish credibility. Technology is great. It’s a tool, but at the end of the day, people do business with people they like, that they feel a connection with and believe to be authentic.”
It turns out the secret sauce is not so secret. And it has quite a few tried-and-true mortal ingredients.

We salespeople are artists. We grow relationships, have a vision and bring an idea forward. We show up in our communities and care about the customer experience. We partner, we listen, and we find solutions. We are authentic, we are change agents, we are relevant, we are adaptable. We are not afraid to ask for the business. We are flexible with the ever-changing banking environment. We understand the needs of our customers. We research and we provide solutions. We remain relevant in a world moving more and more digital.

Like that succinct advice from the theme song of the TV series Cheers: “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”

Kelli Nielsen is EVP of retail banking and marketing at 1st Security Bank of Washington and an advisory board member at the ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking. She was the moderator for a panel of bankers who shared their secrets to success at the Washington Bankers Association Retail Sales & Leadership Conference.