It's all about Sales

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2004

You've seen the bright yellow PT Cruisers all over town. Landmark Bank president Tom Quale calls them "driving billboards" for the upstart community bank, which was founded in 2000. The cars are a vivid example of the aggressive marketing tools today's banks-large and small-are using to capture their share of the huge banking growth market that is Sarasota and Manatee.

Bankers have always been marketers, of course, but in times past, it was about quietly building relationships through community service, the country-club circuit and business contacts. If their reputation and relationships were well-established, bankers could sit behind their desks and wait for customers to walk through the door.

"That idea might have been correct more than five or 10 years ago," says Jim Roberts, group vice president of Florida marketing for SunTrust. But it's a different ball game today. Nationwide, banks are enticing new customers with sexy side benefits, like a free cruise for new account holders, even an opportunity to win a free cruise on the Queen Mary II. In the numbers game, they're all trying to serve customers better, faster, and with bigger returns, from no-cost checking to free safety deposit boxes, higher yields on deposits and 60-second loan approval.

Bankers are hitting the road to make sales calls and peddle new products, Roberts says, because that's what today's customers want: "We had to change the way we did business. We had to get our people to be aggressive, especially now with so many banking choices."

Even with huge bank mergers taking place nationwide, new banks are entering the Sarasota/Bradenton market at a rapid pace. And while there may be small differences between products, most banks offer the standard menu of services, from basic retail services such as checking and savings accounts, CDs and annuities, to commercial services like payroll management, direct deposit and more, to private wealth management services for their most affluent clients. Print ads for free business checking, attractive interest rates and other incentives only go so far.

So in order to win new customers, banks must take their message to the people. "For the major banks in the country, competition is very intense, the products and services offered look very similar, and the functionality of the offerings are almost indistinguishable," agrees Gary Cohn, president and COO of Datatron, a West Palm Beach-based firm that studies marketing trends in the banking industry. "So how then, is one financial institution more 'successful' than the other? Banks that realize the importance of proactive selling and sales skills, and implement a program designed to re-enforce its importance, will come out ahead in this game."

Colleen Kvetko, president of Fifth Third Bank of Florida, also stresses the importance of sales. "We all have the same products. Some may be a little sexier, a little different, but basically, a checking account is a checking account is a checking account," she says. "The most important tool that you have at a bank is your people. You're going to deal with bank where you have a relationship."

That's where the marketing comes in. (Calling marketing "sales" is kind of like calling escargot "snails.") Though tactics vary from bank to bank, what they all are selling are relationships-the idea that a bank knows your name and your company, and understands your banking needs. Kvetko explains that when she used to cold call to set up appointments to present Fifth Third's offerings to local businesses (since she's now bank president her cold-calling days are over) prospective clients were always pleasantly surprised that she offered to meet at their place of business, not at the bank. "Management is much more comfortable in their own environment, and we get to see where they operate and meet the management team," says Kvetko. Plus, she adds, seeing a workplace tells the bank a lot about how the client does business: The banker gets to quietly survey cleanliness, safety and security, among other things, factors that might come into play at loan time.

"That recipe for success has worked for us," Kvetko says. "We never sat in the office waiting for business; our customers are used to us being at their front door." What's more, she adds, those visits are not just once a year. Bank officers are eager to make presentations to their corporate clients' employees on such varied topics as direct deposit, discounts on products, first-time home buyer and investment seminars.

But does all that solicitation from the bank start to feel like, well, solicitation? According to DataTron's Cohn, clients usually appreciate the extra attention. "When representatives of the bank contact the client with offerings of new products or special rates, it can be a comfort," he says. "In most cases, this lets the customer know that their banking representative is looking out for products or services that might be of interest or beneficial to them." He adds that for upscale products in particular-like cash or asset management-such calls are seen not as an imposition, but a confirmation of the relationship between bank and client.

And this type of marketing in Sarasota and Manatee, where bank executives get out and meet prospective clients, is happening "as we speak," says Kvetko. Bankers are smart to take their message on the road. The region is booming. Sarasota represents Fifth Third's third Florida market-the bank is already well established in Naples and Fort Myers-and currently, its biggest area of interest.

"We consider Sarasota a huge growth market," says Kvetko. The bank's sole location right now is on St. Armands Circle, but its flagship will soon be 35,000 square feet of the Plaza at Five Points, now rising on the corner of Main Street and Pineapple Avenue. A new building at Stickney Point and U.S. 41 is in the works, and Kvetko estimates opening seven new Fifth Third branches within the next three to five years. "We have made a major financial commitment to Sarasota," she says.

SunTrust's Roberts agrees that this region is where the money is. "When you look at Florida as a whole," he says, "Sarasota/Bradenton is more affluent, and growing as fast or faster than most other markets. So in a market that's growing, that's where SunTrust wants to be."

All this aggressive marketing conjures up images of bank executives living out of their cars, juggling cell phones, Blackberries and traffic on Tamiami Trail as they hustle from one business to another, hoping to bend an owner's ear. Not exactly. All appointments are prearranged, and almost all come through referral. In fact, a favorite modus operandi is to make marketing presentations with a satisfied customer riding shotgun. "We do warm calling," adds Roberts. "We get new business referrals from existing customers, or call existing customers and ask them to expand their relationship with us." Banks, he adds, are constantly trying to come up with new marketing strategies. "In any business, the more competition you have, the more you're forced to try different things, to try to get different customers. You can't just hang a shingle and wait for people to stop on by."

Plus, Kvetko adds, for every dog and pony show a bank trots out, it still has to deliver the goods. "It's all about hustle," says Kvetko, "but more importantly, execution."

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