Up Close and Personal

Preparation makes first-time client meetings successful

By Kathryn Jackson Fallon

Contacting prospective and current sales customers is a basic part of taking care of business. In-person sales conversations can be a great door opener for relationship-based community bankers. When it comes to commercial lending, nothing beats an in-person meeting at a client’s workplace to demonstrate that you and your community bank will be there for them, community bankers agree.

Even millennial entrepreneurs, who fully embrace social media, apparently prefer in-person meetings. A recent study found that millennials, the largest cohort of today’s workforce, prefer face-to-face meetings. Going to the client’s worksite is ideal; you connect with people and their business. With phone calls, the other person often is not fully engaged and is often distracted. And a tip or even a sales pitch offered in person is more likely to be successful than one handled on the phone. Body language is a large part of communication, and it is easier to “read” the client in person.

But how can seasoned relationship loan officers give their on-site sales calls the best opportunity for success?

Warming the cold call
Greg Walker, senior vice president of marketing and communications with United Bank, a $530 million-asset community bank in Silverhill, Ala., is a former commercial loan officer and business development officer, and an expert on this topic. He stresses the importance of doing as much thorough homework as possible before initiating in-person sales calls. That means checking resources such as LinkedIn, Salesforce or IBISWorld, or doing old-fashioned networking with people in the know, he says.

The purpose of the research is to learn as much as possible about a company’s history, its owners and how the business operates and serves its clients, before you initiate an appointment. Understanding a company’s business cycle, competition and market challenges is the point of the research, Walker says.

“You may spend a lot of time with the research part,” he says. “But if you’re armed with knowledge and can speak the language, you will have an advantage.”

Walker also advises to embrace cold calling. Although it’s always easier to follow up on an initial introduction or a referral, some of the most productive meetings Walker has had were the result of cold calling. He suggests being up-front in those circumstances. Introduce yourself and say that you’d like to learn more about the contact’s business and to set up a time to meet, just for a conversation.

No sales talk occurs at this point, and that is pivotal, Walker advises. “I find if you are willing to listen, a business owner is willing to share his or her story and more on their business,” he says. “If you get a no, then move on. If you don’t ask, the only answer is no, and there are yeses waiting for you if you will ask.”

Eric Wiltrout, a vice president of business development and market management for Peoples Bank of Commerce, a $295 million-asset community bank in Cambridge, Minn., agrees that too many sales callers pursue a sale during an initial client meeting. Starting a relationship should be the primary if not the only goal of a first sales call, Wiltrout says. Loan officers should be able to read the client conversation to know the right time to ask for the business, because, as he says, “if they come across as too pushing, they very well might burn that bridge.”

The personal helps
Wiltrout tells his loan officers before they go on a sales call to find out about the customer’s personal hobbies and interests. “We typically know about their business, but gathering more information on the personal side will be helpful,” he says. “Do they like to hunt, golf or spend time with the grandkids? This information will ultimately help each lender strengthen that connection with the customer or potential customer.”

Once you set up a time to meet, bring along any relevant data about the industry so you can offer some insights, and be sure to identify the key person to contact for future visits. This first visit is about fact-finding. Walker finds that asking the owner for a tour to see the operation allows him to spend more time with the owner and have a conversation around cash flow, credit needs, the business cycle and so on.

But do not ask for the business at this point, Walker and Wiltrout agree. Understand it may take multiple visits before you are given an opportunity to ask for the client’s business. Using the data gathered on this initial visit, plan your second call, because there is no such thing as a “one-and-done” call.

Both Wiltrout and Walker say it is important to send a thank-you note after the meeting, and Wiltrout sends along a box of bank trinkets as a token of appreciation. Beyond that, follow up if you said you would and be accessible when the owner needs you. If you give out your cellphone number, answer it.

“Some owners will be surprised when you show up and actually do what you say you will,” Walker says.

Community banks have the benefit of being located within the community they serve and near clients, so take advantage of this proximity, reach out and meet your present and future clients close up and in person.

Kathryn Jackson Fallon is a writer in New York.