In trying times, be a friend to keep a customer

My oldest mantra when encouraging ethical sales cultures to bankers is, “Make a friend, earn a customer.” Recent economic shocks to both American consumers and small businesses have placed a derivative of that phrase in my mind.

“Be a friend, keep a customer” is something I have begun suggesting to bankers striving to maintain relationships as economic headwinds pick up. Customers are increasingly under financial strain and searching for solutions to their challenges.

Concomitantly, human nature prods folks to pay special attention to who they can rely on and turn to when challenging situations are before them.

Good friends are those you can call upon when you need help. Better friends, however, reach out to you before you have to ask.

The genesis of the make-a-friend, earn-a-customer approach sprung from a time years ago when I was asked to create real-world sales training programs for in-store branch bankers.

At the time, the dominant approach most were using involved rather aggressive sales tactics that were ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst. I joked with bankers that if customers were literally heading in another direction upon the sight of us … we were doing something terribly wrong.

Beyond that, much of their scripted approach resembled interrogations and debates. The idea seemed to be that all you had to do was start and win a debate to gain a customer.

If you were persistent enough, surely, they would see how you were there to save them from their past poor banking decisions!

As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s a scarily accurate description of what was happening in many programs. Of course, many traditional branches at the time weren’t exactly ports in the sales storm.

More than a few banks had adopted an “every teller transaction is a sales opportunity” approach. Most bankers who lived through that era can tell stories of the very first words coming out of customers’ mouths sounding like, “I know, I know. You already asked me about that. I don’t want it. Can I please just deposit this check?”

We created environments in which customers saw an interaction with a banker — whether in a branch, a store or even a phone call — as being a sales minefield to navigate on the way to trying to complete a transaction.

It was clearly obvious that bankers operating in these cultures were looking for every reason in the world not to interact with customers. They (rightly) associated these heavy-handed approaches with alienating otherwise happy clients. Worse, customers began looking at them as salespeople with agendas and not bankers looking to help them.

To remove the fear from the “sales” process, I began asking folks to simply focus on making as many friends as they could in their stores, branches, communities, etc. I asked them to put any other agenda aside and simply look to increase the number of people in this world who would consider them a friend (or at least friendly).

We’d discuss the basics of putting ourselves in position to have friendly conversations with folks. We acknowledged that people become friends at different paces. There are some folks we connect with instantly to become “fast friends.” Others may take a bit more time and effort. If we remained proactively engaging and friendly, however, most would come around.

I was regularly amused as senior managers would express surprise that taking the hard focus off sales was leading to increased sales. But the simple fact of the matter is that increasing pleasant, non-agenda conversations with people led to much more frequent and productive interactions.

The process of making new friends goes hand in hand with earning new customers. We earn them when we engage people, ask and listen to their stories, and as appropriate, share our own.

There is little doubt that both consumer and small- business customers are experiencing varying levels of financial stress these days. Some are better positioned to weather the storm than others, but it’s a fair bet that the majority have concerns.

It’s in challenging and uncertain times that people more clearly see who their strongest allies are. Being helpful if asked for assistance is powerful.

Reaching out to check in on someone, to listen to their concerns and offer assistance if needed — and doing so without being asked — is even more meaningful.

There is a tendency for bankers to assume that small- business customers, in particular, have a greater awareness of the products, services and assistance available to them than they do.

Yet even those who are on top of everything available to them tend to have questions that will go unasked and unanswered unless and until their banker reaches out.

Whether a customer has a new or evolving need that can be addressed or not, a friendly check-in reminds them of who is truly on their side.

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