In these challenging times, both bankers and bank customers are stressed and exhausted. Typical schedules are disrupted, work environments are upended, and business models are challenged.  Because this pandemic shock has brought us into new territory, there has never been a better time in modern banking history than now to enhance your value as a banker. This environment is precisely when good bankers differentiate their service and outperform their competition to win new business, and further solidify existing relationships. In good times, bankers are more likely to compete on price and credit structure, but in challenging times, community bankers can move away from price and compete on service and knowledge.

As customers withstand painful experiences, the best bankers can capitalize and become empathetic problem-solvers for existing relationships and differentiate their services to onboard new clients.  There is one problem that bankers must overcome today; the ability to provide superior customer service relies on empathy – a good relationship banker must walk in the customer’s shoes.  However, we are less physically connected today, and bankers cannot easily rely on face-to-face interaction to establish an empathetic connection with customers.  Nonetheless, there are a few simple rules that bankers should remember to express empathy in challenging times to win new business and solidify existing relationships.

Importance of Empathy

Empathy is the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people and is one of the critical elements of emotional intelligence.  Imagining what others are feeling, and experiencing those feelings is an essential element of excellent customer service.  Empathy is a crucial element of emotional intelligence, which is defined as the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.  

There is a strong correlation between a high level of emotional intelligence and career success.  In the field of sales, emotional intelligence is a better predictor of job success than logic intelligence (what we often associate with IQ).  While it is probably not possible to increase someone’s emotional intelligence, nonetheless, for specific circumstances (such as providing customer services during stressful times), it can help bankers to review and understand the necessary steps and techniques to practice and improve empathy skills. 

One of the challenges in interacting with customers today is that empathy is primarily a receptive activity – we demonstrate empathy by listening and taking information in.  Therefore, humans tend to show empathy during a conversation through body language.  That includes leaning in, spreading our arms, nodding, and maintaining eye contact.  In today’s environment, bankers are more often talking to customers on the phone.  But expressing empathy now is equally, if not more, important than ever because customers are stressed and concerned. 

How to Express Empathy Remotely

While emotional intelligence may not be teachable, there are some basic concepts that bankers should practice to help hone empathy skills.  First, bankers should listen without interrupting.  As tough as it may be, do not say, “I understand,” just let your customer talk.  Customers want to feel unique, and you cannot make them feel exclusive by saying that you can understand what they are going through.  Second, always use a conversational tone.  Since we are talking on the phone and physical cues are gone, the audible tone is all we have to convey the quality of our understanding.  That means that we should vary the pace, pitch, and volume of our conversation.  It may sound easy for the emotionally intelligent banker, but others will need to practice this technique to improve their skills.  Third, share the painful experiences that you have in common.  While customers complain about their situation, your similar frustrating situations will, if properly shared with the customer,  solidify your bond.

Understanding everyday customer needs is important, and every interaction with a customer is different, but there is a framework that bankers must understand.  Bankers must be aware of four levels of customer needs: 

Stated needs: this is what the customer will verbalize to you;

Real needs: these needs are understood, but they may be overlooked, and customers will acknowledge them if asked;

Unstated needs: the customer will never tell you about these needs, but good salespeople will discern what they are; and

Delighted needs: this is the WOW factor, and go beyond the customer’s stated, real or unstated needs. 

The best salespeople attempt to meet every one of the four needs, although it is not always possible.  We have been spending a substantial amount of phone time with frustrated customers.  Our customers are frustrated both with the banking relationship and with the challenges they face with their business.  We have developed several standard responses which we use depending on the specific customer circumstance.  Here are some of the better ones that have worked for us to help alleviate customer frustration:

  1. I appreciate your patience on this.
  2. I would feel frustrated if I were in your position too.
  3. You have been with our bank for X years.  That is a long-term and meaningful relationship. 
  4. I would be asking the same questions as you are.
  5. Your business means a lot to us, and we want to work with you to help.
  6. I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
  7. These are very challenging times, and we are learning as we go.
  8. Thank you for remaining so positive and working through this.

Empathy is a personal and not an organizational asset.  People that can better relate or show empathy can retain and deepen customer relationships and gain new ones.  While emotional intelligence cannot be taught, there are some basic skills that everyone can practice to help improve their empathy.

Practical Knowledge

If bankers can combine empathy with practical knowledge, critical analysis, and thought leadership, they can be unstoppable. There are so many new programs and new dynamics such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Main Street Lending Program, the reopening of American, and the current credit shock, that bankers can add practical insight and advice at almost every turn. If your bank ever struggled with finding a value proposition, now is the time to define yourself. Gaining trust through empathy and then imparting hope with substantive knowledge can win business for life. In these times of anxiety, every customer is screaming for additional help and guidance.  

Key Takeaways for Community Banks

In the last ten years, banking has become a more commoditized business, but challenging situations better allow bankers to compete on service and not merely on price or credit structure.  Being emotionally involved is always a competitive advantage for bankers, but more so in these times.  The necessity to interact with customers remotely is not a barrier to emotionally intelligent bankers, and every banker can benefit from practicing some of the essential elements of empathy. Combining empathy with practical advice is a potent combination. There are few times in the history of America where the need for guidance has been as great. Now is the time to make a difference. Now is the time to distinguish yourself from the competition.

Tags: Published: 05/04/20 by Chris Nichols