“Soft skills”: Time for a re-brand?


Soft skills.  You know what I mean: presentation skills, effective communication, teamwork, time management…  It’s not really as important as the Advanced Excel Modelling or Leveraged Loans training.  It’s all just common sense stuff, isn’t it?

Perhaps it’s time for a re-brand.

After many years designing and delivering training for corporate banks, in the last 12-18 months I have seen a stark increase in the demand for “soft skills” training.  There seems to be an acknowledgement that revenue, especially in the long-term, is impacted not just by what we sell but by how we engage with clients and peers.  So for now, let’s pretend there are no “soft” skills, only Management and Personal Development skills or, if you prefer a three-letter-acronym (and I know you do), MPD.  This is possibly a better way of describing some rather valuable career skills.  Let’s go with it here.

Now let’s be clear, technical training is not dead. The trend to continue up-skilling relationship bankers in technical areas, especially products, remains constant.  In the current economic environment, with both reluctance to borrow and reluctance to lend, the banker’s need to maximise share-of-wallet has returned to prominence.  As a result, product training is in demand as banks drive the importance of cross-selling.  Of course, knowing what the products are and how they work does not mean that you know how to engage with clients in order to establish their needs or, indeed, gain their trust.

Throughout 2013, we have designed numerous programmes to address specific gaps in personal skills as corporate banks move from product-led to needs-led.  The term “Trusted Advisor” has been used with abandon for many years within the banking community but, only now, is it evident that banks are thinking about how they can help their people develop into Trusted Advisors rather than just telling them that is what they need to be.  The message is clear: be seen to be a partner of clients through the economic cycle, not just a seller of financial products when times are good.

Bank staff involved may have significant relationship management experience, but what they often lack is experience of truly challenging, emotionally-charged interactions

One question we get repeatedly asked is when this type of training should be delivered in a banker’s career.  The simple answer is “as soon as possible”, however, we have found that new graduates can sometimes struggle with MPD as they find it difficult to empathise with the current banking context.  Additionally, they are often unaware of their own personal and professional skills shortcomings.  Our solution has been to engage them with appropriate real-life reference points in training, even if not banking-related.  This brings relevance and impact to key principles in a way that theory can sometimes fail to do.  Re-visiting graduates during their first year or so, also allows their early experiences at work to be converted into development opportunities.

Beyond the challenge with graduates, equipping relationship managers to understand and target “client needs” before pitching products, was also a theme in 2013.  It meant a return to grass roots communication skills training including questioning techniques and listening skills.  With experienced relationship managers, lasting and effective impact requires an interactive approach that directly addresses their current skills and behaviours.  Roleplays are known to strike fear into the hearts of training course participants, but the key to success is realism.  Take real client case studies and use trainers who can convincingly play the role of the client CEO/CFO/Treasurer.  If necessary, use professional actors – they are a highly cost-effective solution.

A great example of where role plays are incredibly effective is our work with banks rectifying the mis-selling of financial products.  Bank staff involved may have significant relationship management experience, but what they often lack is experience of truly challenging, emotionally-charged interactions.  In response to demand, we designed scenarios where bankers were required to experience and handle anxiety, anger, bitterness and aggression from ‘clients’.  The experience, we are told, was ‘enlightening’ for all involved.

These activities go beyond manufacturing difficult situations to practise meeting techniques.  Structured appropriately, there is an opportunity to deliver constructive and insightful feedback enabling participants to complete their specific personal development objectives.  It is even possible to identify where and why staff may be unsuitable for a particular role.

So what lies ahead in 2014?
To achieve the longed-for return to a “normal” lending environment, corporate banks need to invest in core credit skills training to ensure recovery is sustainable.  This will encourage commercial lending decisions that are based on carefully managed risk as much as on growing revenue.  Judgements based on available collateral and personal guarantees, should fade into insignificance and be replaced by good old-fashioned cash flow lending.

Unfortunately, the review of past mis-selling cases is set to continue throughout 2014.  With the increased scrutiny we now have of practices before, during and after the financial crisis, it is perhaps inevitable that yet another scandal will emerge; another flavour of product that has been widely mis-sold and which will require review and rectification.

Increasing product knowledge will remain instrumental to growth of ancillary revenues, yet any competitive edge will continue to be influenced by your client’s personal experiences.  As a result, expect to see increased emphasis on building long-term, trust-based client relationships and also, on the potential to support clients “through the economic cycles”.  This is likely to further intensify the demand for MPD training, tipping the scales of development priorities within the corporate banking sector.

Beyond how these trends may evolve, behavioural and cultural change is key to the long-term success and stability of our banks.  Neither of these can be achieved while our attitude to such development remains soft.


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