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Lessons Learned While Mystery Shopping

I consider myself lucky. Over the years, I have accrued wonderful memories and great experiences while mystery shopping at bank and credit union branch locations across the United States.

A few stand-out memories pop into my mind:

  • During one of those notorious Seattle downpours, a teller insisted she walk me to my car holding an umbrella over my head to keep me dry.
  • Down in southern Louisiana, a new account representative went out of her way to help me make dinner reservations at a delicious creole restaurant when she realized I was not familiar with the area.
  • In Ohio, a new accounts representative called to follow-up with me a few days after I had visited his branch. That was the only time someone asked for my name, number and called me after my initial shop. It was a nice touch.

Had I been truly moving, I would have opened a checking account with any of these superstars at their branch. Experiences like these didn’t happen every day, but they sure left a memorable impression on me. I also had a handful of not-so-great experiences too.

One extreme case happened while discussing checking options with an assistant branch manager. Everything was going great until I heard the familiar sound of a vibrating cell phone. 

Immediately his attention went to that phone, and after a few seconds of struggling to ignore the call, he impulsively reached for it and answered. I was a bit surprised (and disappointed) he would take a personal call while I was in his office.

However, I was more startled with what he said to the unknown caller. To paraphrase it was along the line of “Leave me alone, I am working”. But, there was one word he included in his response that really made me cringe…yup, he used the f-word.

He quickly hung up his phone and gave me a short apology for the interruption. An overwhelming sense of dread grew at that moment realizing I would have to recount this conversation to the CEO of the bank the very next day. The CEO did not take it very well – that assistant branch manager was immediately fired.

Thankfully, that was the only time I witnessed inappropriate behavior to that level. More often poorly-rated experiences centered on less offensive behavior (being aloof, a bit condescending, slightly unfriendly, extremely shy) or just having a poor grasp of product and service offerings. However, a majority of frontline staff were welcoming, warm, and generally knowledgeable about the financial institution’s products and services.

During most shops my focus revolved around needing a new checking account, primarily interacting with tellers and new account representatives. If I were to average branch scores from all shopping experiences, I would say frontline staff earned about a 79%. Not bad. There were, however, a handful of superstars that earned a score of 90% or above. Those high scores all had something in common – they successfully incorporated the following three skills:

1. Asking Relevant Questions

Knowing facts and being able to communicate the most relevant facts are two different skills. Memorizing features and benefits of each checking account offered is certainly the first step, but simply regurgitating every line item about each account will leave the consumer feeling overwhelmed and totally confused.

Superstars ask relevant questions to understand a consumer’s needs and adapt how they approach a conversation about account options. Questions like, “Why are you looking for a new account?” or “What do you like/dislike about your current account?” are great ways to encourage an open dialogue with the consumer. Further questions about specific checking behaviors such as, “What kind of balance do you keep in your checking account?” or “Do you prefer paper statements or electronic?” will help frontline staff determine the best account for the consumer.

Besides finding the best checking account, asking the right questions should also lead to the discovery of other financial products and services that are relevant to that consumer.

2. Positive Positioning

Sometimes a consumer will ask a question in which “no” is the simple answer, but not the answer we know the consumer wants to hear. Superstars know how to answer a NO question with a positive spin. Take the following example assuming a traditional free checking account is not offered:

Consumer: “Hi, I was wondering if you offer a Free Checking account?”
Teller: “No, sorry, we do not…”
Consumer: “Ok, thank you…”

The teller did nothing wrong per se, but learning how to spin a negative NO answer into a selling opportunity is something that can be learned. Let’s try the same question again:

Consumer: “Hi, I was wondering if you offer a Free Checking account?”
Teller: “Actually, we have two checking options that make it easy to avoid monthly fees, and you can qualify to earn interest as well…may I ask you a couple of questions to see which account would work best for you?”
Consumer: “Sure, go ahead…”

Not only does the second option avoid using NO as the answer, it also keeps the consumer engaged in dialogue. Of course “no” can be used in a positive way – as in, “There are NO monthly fees on this account.” Spend time crafting best-practice answers on common questions or objections your frontline staff frequently encounter. Be honest but position your accounts in the most positive light.

3. Going Above and Beyond

There are many ways to go above and beyond what is expected when a consumer visits your branch for the first time. Obviously, the teller that walked me to my car with an umbrella is a great example of this, but that approach is not always practical nor realistic in most situations. Some branches would be too busy at times, others wouldn’t be safely staffed to allow that to happen. Going above and beyond is getting into the habit of looking for extra opportunities to stand out from your competition. In other words, a little extra effort can go a long way. Here are a couple of ideas that DO make a difference:

  • Show, don’t just tell! If a brochure is not available, print out the information that the consumer is requesting. Staple a business card with name, direct line and email address for easy follow-up. If there are visual tools that will help the consumer understand your products or services better, make sure those are available to the frontline. A comparison chart that has all the information about each account makes it much easier for the consumer to follow during the discussion. Make more of an impact by showing your fees in comparison to competitor’s big bank fees for the same services if applicable.
  • Ask for the business. This doesn’t mean asking the consumer every minute, “Are you ready to open the account?” That becomes annoying and feels just too-over-the-top and insincere. Instead, try approaches that make the consumer feel at ease, not just a notch on the sales belt. For example, “If you have your driver’s license with you today, I can start the process now, it should only take 10 – 15 minutes.” And if they are not able to commit at that moment, make it clear that you do want them as a customer or member by reminding them why your financial institution is a good option, “We would really love to have you bank with us – our Prime Time Checking account looks like a perfect fit for your checking needs…”.

Each of the skills listed above can be learned and implemented if your frontline staff is provided with the tools to recognize these opportunities. Putting the right people in the right position will make everyone’s job easier in the long run. For example, it would be an uphill battle to take the quiet accountant/analyst and expect to achieve a “superstar” new account representative.

Behaviors can be tweaked, facts can be learned, but starting with someone who truly likes to interact and help people is critical to creating more superstars with your frontline staff.

Jennifer Brooks has over 20 years in the financial marketing industry. She is Chief Marketing Officer at Stellar Strategic Group. To learn more about digital marketing, please contact  or 402-281-0692.

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