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Mystery shopping the whole bank

How California’s Sunwest Bank shops way beyond the teller line 

Some employees at Sunwest Bank like to play “spot the shopper.”

The bank, a big believer in mystery shopping, organizes its operations into regions, and mixes up the details of shops in order to avoid having offices tip each other off.

But sometimes employees will call headquarters, believing that they’ve been shopped, to report that they spotted the tester.

Oftentimes, this causes Brian Constable to chuckle, because he knows where each shop takes place—and frequently the banker calling him is wrong.

When that happens, he tells the caller that he hopes that they treated the person right—because they were a real client or prospect.

Beyond the teller line
For Constable, executive vice-president and chief commercial banking officer at the $646.2 million-assets bank, headquartered in Tustin, Calif., the need for such field evaluations comes down to a single phrase: “inspecting what we expect.”

Traditionally, mystery shopping tended to be used on the retail side of banks, but that is changing, and Sunwest, headquartered in Tustin, Calif., represents a strong example of how far mystery shopping can be taken for a service-oriented institution. (Sunwest currently uses Informa Research Services. Read an interview with Informa’s Chad Watkins on modern mystery shopping.

“It’s a bank-wide program here,” says Constable. “Anybody who has contact with a client, we shop monthly.” The bank believes obtaining an independent view of how well employees are doing is critical, identifying both strengths and weaknesses.” Constable says the bank had Informa shop even such specialized functions as Cash Management.

Make the service point stick
“We think that our employees provide the best service,” says Constable, “but just because I believe that doesn’t mean it is so.  So, sometimes you have to bring in a third party to validate what you believe.”

With this attitude on service, the bank clearly doesn’t just rely on testing.

First off, it hires for service. Constable says that Sunwest interviewers look for sales and service abilities when they meet applicants.

Second, it trains for service and sales. For example, Constable says that a Sunwest-trained banker will use a client or prospect name at least twice in a sales conversation. They will also automatically give the customer they are talking to more than a single business card—because the bank wants referral business too.

Third, the bank stresses the importance of service on an ongoing basis. This involves several components, in addition to the shopping program.

One is, making service part of employees’ annual job reviews. This makes it clear that service performance is more than optional.

“Mystery shopping helps us ‘coach up,” says Constable. “Our goal for an employee who has been shopped is to hit 90% out of 100%.”

But there is also a short-term incentive: cash and recognition.

Anytime a Sunwest banker gets a 100% shopping score, they get a $100 check from Constable.  Some employees may be included in multiple types of shops, depending on what the bank is testing for that month. As a result, with some particularly adept staffers, Constable has found himself writing checks for as much as $400 to a single banker.

And quarterly, Constable and the bank’s president take all of the 100% bankers from that period to lunch.

Constable adds that the results of the bank’s shopping program go far up the food chain—indeed, results routinely reach the boardroom level.

Shopping helps build culture with acquisitions
Constable says that Sunwest has been using mystery shopping for a number of years, but that it has been especially helpful in regard to employees who have come to the organization through acquisitions. Over the last year or so, Sunwest has taken over three failing banks from FDIC (Metropacific Bank and Pacific Coast National Bank in California, and First State Bank, Flagstaff, Ariz.)

Sunwest management included the newly acquired staff and offices in its shopping program. Constable says that management expected to find some issues in the course of the shops, and Informa’s shoppers did find flaws in some bankers’ customer-service approaches.

This gave the acquiring management a basis to start from.  Constable says that once  the results were gone over with the employees, they began to change their ways.

“There was a major culture change,” Constable explains.

Stop the bad before it spreads
Clearly, Sunwest devotes some bucks to its shopping program and its incentives, though Constable says the effort is very cost-effective.

He also thinks bankers have to look at the alternative to knowing how well employees are serving customers.

“One bad teller talks to 50 clients a day,” points out Constable. “If you lost five clients a month, that’s big, and it’s a lot of clients to replace.”

And then, one doesn’t know who the disappointed or annoyed customer might turn out to be, or who they’ll talk to. But they will talk.

Constable points out that Sunwest has clients with $20 million, even $30 million on deposit. The cost of replacing such business, should the account holder become alienated and leave, is incalculable—if it were even possible.

Like this? Read about how mystery shopping has evolved, in an interview with expert Chad Watkins of Informa Research Services in “Reporter’s Notebook”
Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of Bankers Exchange and digital content manager of www.bankingexchange.com. Previously he spent 36 years on the staff of ABA Banking Journal and 22 years concurrently as editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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