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Tips for Winning Customers A look at how community banks should target new customers


To be successful, banks need a balance between increasing product and share-of-wallet with current customers and bringing on new customers. This is especially important if the financial institution has an aging customer base.

Plus, there’s attrition in just about every business and even for a bank that’s doing fine, an objective should be to ensure new business covers that.

If a community bank wants to stand out among competitors, and attract new people to its branches, it must focus on raising its customer experience beyond what’s expected.

“Retail banks must focus on making their customers feel special and valued,” says Brennan Wilkie, SVP of customer experience strategy at cloud-based customer experience platform InMoment. “There is an ample amount of opportunities for banks to heighten these experiences, which can lead to stronger relationships with their customers.”

According to InMoment’s 2018 CX Trends, 72 percent of consumers say they will choose one brand over another if they are made to feel special. Further, according to Forrester’s 2018 Banking Customer Experience Index, among customers who feel valued, 77 percent plan to stay with the bank, 89 percent will advocate for the bank, and 85 percent plan to spend more with the bank.

David Reiling, CEO of St. Paul, Minneapolis-based Sunrise Banks, knows that there’s a wealth of different bank choices that customers can make, which is why his bank strives to give them tools for success.

“It all starts with listening,” he says. “We engage with the community to identify the problems that we can solve, and continue listening to make sure we can evolve with them. Enabling customers to achieve financial wellness is how we add more to our offerings and make sure the both us and the community succeeds.”
Sunrise Banks’ Impact Deposit Fund is a great example. Any customer with a deposit account can sign up and it doesn’t change the way their account functions—there are no added fees or different interest.

“But what does happen is we make a promise to that customer that their money will only be used to lend toward community development and job creation,” Reiling says. “We want our customers to know that their money is put to good use, and that we share their values.”

Aligning the bank with the community’s goals and plans not only establishes you as a strong member of the community but puts you both on a path for success.

Sue Hines, head of customer engagement with Informa Research Services, says when going about creating a strategy for luring new customers, a bank must be clear about what they are trying to achieve.

“Everything you do from structuring your offerings, structuring and pricing your offers, to targeting and crafting your message depends on the ultimate objective,” she says. “What you need to do if your objective is to grow deposits is vastly different from what will work best if you are trying to grow loans.”

Moreover, simply saying you want to grow your customer base is unlikely to provide you with any guidance in terms of strategy or tactics, which is why she recommends tailoring your customer acquisition strategy to meet the target and the goal.

“The offering and message needs to precisely target the needs of the target audience,” Hines adds. “This means the ‘secret sauce’ is listening to the audience and finding out how they are articulating their needs and concerns, so you can speak directly to their current mindset.”

Tried and True Measure

One great way to win new customers is to offer referral bonuses to your current customers for referring their friends and family, such as $100 bonus per referral plus $100 bonus to the new referral as incentive to join the bank.

Money is a quagmire of emotional content, which is why Hines says a bank should ease people’s concerns and consciences when looking to lure them in.

“Good marketing is always about helping people address their problems,” she says. “Even and especially the most experienced bankers need to hear the voice of the customer so they can demonstrate insight and understanding in their products and messaging.”

Lewis Goldman, chief marketing officer of LendKey, a fintech company that provides a platform for community banks to source loans through digital channels, says the best way for a bank to get new customers is by offering them “an offer they can’t refuse.”

“A great rate and estimated savings to refinance their student loans, a compelling credit card offer, a high interest savings account—each delivered at the right time can win a new customer,” he says. “The offer opens the door to engagement and getting the customer to learn about your bank.”

Thinking out-of-the-box can mean something different for each financial institution so it’s important, especially for community banks, to think creatively but not be intimidated or discouraged by what larger financial institutions are able to do with much larger budgets, he says.

As an example, Goldman cites WSFS Bank, a community bank in the Delaware Valley and one of the 10 oldest continuously operating banks in the country. The bank was facing an aging customer base and declining consumer assets. In 2013 it partnered with LendKey to start offering private student loans (both in-school and student loan refinancings) to both current customers and prospects in their banking footprint.

“By addressing a need for Millennial and Gen Z customers, WSFS added over 1,200 new customers and over $60 million in new loan balances (just under 13% of their overall consumer portfolio), which has helped them diversify their portfolio,” he says. “This is a great example of focusing on the ‘right’ target audience with a compelling offer.”

Additionally, remember employees are a bank’s best brand ambassadors and with the rise in social media can have tremendous impact. It’s important that employees understand the bank’s brand positioning and are aligned with the bank’s objectives.

Create a Comfortable Environment

With online banking, ATMs, employee layoffs, and branch closings, many banks today are often viewed as cold or impersonal to the average customer. Human interaction is often the missing link at a local bank, which is why it’s necessary for banks to make the on-site experience warmer and more personal if they want to attract new people to the bank.

A great way to do this is by designating one of your employees as a greeter—someone who makes an immediate, positive connection when a customer enters the bank.

As customers enter the bank, the greeter should smile and welcome them, perhaps even asking them about their day. Smiling is key, and all employees of the bank should be smiling and providing a positive, friendly impression.

Phrases such as “How can I help you today?” or “What can I do to be of assistance?” are great starters, and once the transaction begins, asking how someone’s day is going or if they have plans for the weekend are also good ways to put someone at ease and let them feel comfortable.

And if the customer comes to your bank often, address them by their name. Make a personal connection.

Promote your brand and allow the community to actively engage with your employees through community events, sponsorships and financial literacy opportunities. Highlight the work that you’re doing to support local businesses, partner with those businesses to host free seminars and volunteer in the community.

“The more that a prospect sees your brand in the community, the more they’ll think of you the next time they need to take out a loan,” Goldman says. “And, they’ll want to do business with you, because they believe that you genuinely care about making their neighborhood a better place.”

It’s also important to attract the “right” customer. Winning new customers means understanding who your desired/ideal customer is and building a strategy around that which leverages what a community bank stands for—such as the importance of a local presence.

“Tie into the ‘buy local, shop local’ movement within your community,” Goldman says. “Be the brand that is active and well known, engage employees and customers in these entities together.

Be consistent in how you present your brand in branches, online, in print/TV, and on social media.”

Why Customers Leave

Of course, winning a customer for your bank means another bank losing a customer, so it’s important to understand some of the main reasons people leave. The top reasons customers leave their financial institution are fees, poor experience, slow processes, and a lack of enabling technology such as mobile banking.

A major mistake that banks make is surrounding transparency. Reiling notes even when something goes wrong, engaging the customer and making sure they know how things went wrong and how you are going to make changes is key.

“A well-developed dialogue with a customer can help repair relationships after a mistake,” he says. “Customers typically leave when they feel there has been lack of transparent communication with respect to a fee or if they feel they have been charged unfairly.”

In fact, fees are a common reason people switch. Here, the triggers can be both internal—if you raise or change your fees, and external—customers becoming aware of competitive offers.

Hines shares the most common reason for leaving any financial institution is that people move away. The right digital technology and ATM relationships can go a long way to encouraging customers to retain their providers.

Gaining new customers is important for any business, not just a bank. However, Reiling warns that banks can get in to trouble when so much emphasis is placed on new customers, that the needs of current and future customers are no longer being met.

“When you are no longer able to help your customers succeed and achieve their goals, you will start to lose customers,” he says. “By having a plan in place to ‘win’ customers, a bank will survive.”

A graduate of the University of Miami, Keith Loria is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for major  newspapers and magazines for close to 20 years, on topics as diverse as sports, business and healthcare. You can  view some of his recent writing at

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