I've had the chance to look under the hood of many banks' sales training programs over the course of my career as a consultant. The very first bank sales training material I was tasked with putting together a couple of decades ago was specifically designed for in-store branch bankers.

Just about every bank I worked with already had at least some form of sales training. Many had paid big bucks to outside training groups. It seemed that many bank management teams weren't sure what they needed — but if the promises were big enough and the price was high enough, sign them up!

Kidding aside, the thing that kept gnawing at me was that so many branch employees were made absolutely miserable by the sales training on which their companies were spending small fortunes and thousands of man hours. And this ill will had toxic effects on their branch environments.

The only slightly less miserable middle managers tried to explain their heavy-handed approach by arguing that bankers simply weren't wired for sales. Therefore they felt they needed training companies to heavily script banker and customer interactions. But most of the scripting I observed more resembled debating a customer than talking to him.

That said, I had to hand it to the training companies out there who convinced management that if their techniques weren't producing more sales, it was the fault of the bankers. "The training is fine. Your people are the problem." Now that was a sales job!

Through the years, I've continually found a less-than-productive dynamic in many institutions' sales cultures. Middle and senior managers seem to believe that employees who resist an increased sales focus are simply whining. After all, without sales and cross-sales, the future of any organization is not just bleak — it's nonexistent.

Meanwhile, front-line employees often believe that management outside the branches has lost perspective on what goes on inside them. Customers typically come into branches for very specific reasons, and it's usually not to hear a sales pitch. More and more customers are there to resolve a problem that could not be sufficiently addressed online or via telephone. They often aren't in a genial mood, and the last thing they want is to be forced to hear a lengthy spiel about some product that's of no interest to them.

Truth be told, both sides have valid points. But at the end of the day, everyone wants the same results: a successful and growing company. We need to remind each other sometimes that our foes are the folks down the street at other financial institutions, not the people listed up and down our own org charts.

I've been especially tuned in to the dangers of developing toxic cultures in recent years as economic forces have squeezed bank profits. The pressure to expand existing customer relationships in our branches has only increased.

The important thing to remember is that the most effective way to boost cross-sell numbers is to improve customer experiences in conjunction with the pride that our teams take in their work.

The best-run branches and most talented bankers tend to have better sales numbers because they sell and cross-sell to a more engaged and receptive audience. They have these more engaged and receptive audiences because they create them through their own actions.

Customers who are impressed by a branch's environment and its invested, dedicated employees are far more willing to consider expanding their relationship with those bankers. And employees who are proud of what they do and where they do it are much more eager to suggest and discuss additional products and services with customers who come into their branches.

I encourage managers to talk to their teams about earning a sale as opposed to simply making one. The difference is not just semantics.

Folks focused on making a sale tend to think about what they ought to say. People looking to earn a sale instead concentrate on what actions they can take to impress and engage customers in their presence. First and foremost, that means being great at whatever task or transaction a customer needs that day.

Making a sale is bank-focused. Earning a sale is customer-focused. And yes, one of the important steps to earning a cross-sale is actually asking these impressed customers for additional business.

Sales are not simply a function of our jobs, but a gauge of how well we are doing them.

Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at dmartin@supermarketbank.com.

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