Hello shoppers...

Banking was invented by the ancient Mesopotamians, perfected by the still pretty old Rothschilds and nearly destroyed by the (insert choice of decade since the 20's).

Today there are over 8,000 banks in the US, not counting your mattress. In Des Moines we "only" have 70-ish saving and lending institutions but most have multiple branches, making retail banking one of the most competitive local categories of all.

With all these banks to choose from, which do we choose to deposit our hard-earned shopping dough in, and why? 

We deposit it in the place that:

1. We trust the most

2. Is most convenient

3. Offers the most services

4. Offers the best rates for Secret Shoppers

5. Serves the most cookies, coffee and smiles

I'd put #5 at #1 but then a lot of you would just laugh at me and I've been getting too much targeted guffawing since my review of ISU. 

Still, customer service counts. In fact, it's all that really does - all other things being equal.

That would include the economy, which is an equal opportunity bunch of poop: 120 banks have went belly-up in 2010 (none in Iowa); click this sentence to see the complete list.

With that level of competition and economic pressure, you can bet your high-yield bottom dollar that banks - smart banks - understand the importance of glad-handling their customers. If they want to keep them.

Which brings us to Iowa State Bank - the focus of today's Secret Shopper review.

George O'Dea opened the first ISB location in 1941. Today there are five: that's not a ton of branches. (Wells Fargo has 25, for example - at least that's the number of orange dots I could count on the little Google Maps dealio without my glasses.)

But ISB is locally owned, has (one of) my alma mater's names in its title and seems to emphasize customer service, at least in its online marketing:

"Our mission is to serve customers, prosper, have fun and remain an independent bank."

If serving customers is the first part of your mission statement, then that must be the most important part of your mission - fair enough?

The question is, is it "Mission Accomplished."? Does Iowa State Bank live up to the promi...wait. I guess there's more...

"We will develop lasting financial relationships with our customers that will exceed their expectations. We will continually build upon our successes and turn change into opportunity."

Holy smokes! Sounds like these folks REALLY care about us bank shoppers! So let's see if...hold the ATM printout: for crying outloud, there's more...

"Core values:

Attitude: positive, "can do"

Pride - in ourselves, our job, our community

Desire - to serve the customer

Respect - for each other and the customer

Respect - honesty and fair play

Improvement - people, processes and environment

Family - a sense of caring and belonging

Fun - job satisfaction and enjoyment"

Wow...is that it?

Lots of stuff there. Okay...so anyhoo, let's see if they...

"It's nice to be home."

...live up to the promise of their marketing.

I Secret Shopped all five Iowa State Bank locations, over two days. My stated scenario? I'm a business owner who is dissatisfied with my current bank, particularly in the area of customer service. I'm looking for a bank that does it better. During each visit I will state this, sometimes more than once.

Will employees get my drift, and act accordingly?

 Each visit will be judged based upon my Five Pillars of Great Customer Service:

1. Do ISB employees smile?

2. Do ISB employees greet and if so, how so?

3. Do ISB employees engage - not just about my banking needs but also with general get to know you chit-chat, the kind that knocks down walls between people who've never met?

4. Do ISB employees thank at the end?

5. Does someone from ISB get my contact information in order to follow up, via email, letter or phone call?

In the end, do the employees inside each Iowa State Bank location make me feel like they're happy to see me, like they want to get to know me, like they could be my friend?

Like it's "nice to be home"? 

It's nice to have a rating system, otherwise it would just be a lot of "that was swell" or "that stunk," and that's no way to run a minor blogging operation:


  Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.      

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.      

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.      

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.      

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.   


George O'Dea greeted the first Iowa State Bank customers in April of '41 with a smile on his puss and a song in his heart - which might have been Billy Swan's I Can Help, Olivia Newton-John's Let Me Be There or Beyonce's Single Ladies (just to keep it fresh) if they'd been released back then. 

Let us see if ISB employees are also singing those customer service oldies but goodies.

627 East Locust, Des Moines


Phone greeting: "Good afternoon. Iowa State Bank." (VERY pleasant!) 

Drive-thru greeting: "Hello." (barely audible - speak up so us old foggies can hear you)

Teller greeting: "Hello. What can I help you with?" (GREAT open-ended question!)


This is a ginormous bank; there are two floors, each covering a lot of real estate. The lobby is gorgeous and the overall layout, stunning.

I glanced into several ornate offices as I entered the building, searching for the teller counter. An employee would occasionally look back out through the glass wall at me, without smiling. I think that's one of the reasons it's made of glass - so you can smile and wave at depositors. I also walked past two employees who walked towards me; one had her head down, the other looked me in the eye, then looked down.

It didn't exactly scream Welcome to Iowa State Bank! But, okay.

Danny, Anna and Terry were behind the teller counter as I approached it: Danny was with a customer, Anna was slightly behind him, not engaged with anyone. Neither of them acknowledged me although both made brief eye contact, then looked away. Terry looked up from what she was doing and flashed a very nice smile, then went back to doing her left-brain task.

For all three of you: Say hello to a customer who you have made eye contact with, otherwise we feel like dorks.

After finishing with the guy in front of me, Danny invited me forward. "Hello. What can I help you with?" Nice salutation and open-ended question! 

When I told Danny I wanted to know more about their business accounts, he pointed behind me and said, "See that woman over there? That's Becky. She'll help you."

That's as cool as a roll of quarters. But since there was no one behind me waiting in line - and  even if there were - it would have been cooler to ask for my name, come out from behind the counter and walk over the Becky's desk, tell her that John Ruan VII is here, and then come back and take me to her. That's classy.

Becky said hi and, after I told her why I was there, immediately popped open a brochure and began dutifully explaining the bennies of an ISB business account.

That's fine. That's what every person in Becky's position did at every Iowa State Bank location. That's what everyone has been trained to do.

But if I were management, I'd immediately begin a new training program - by tossing every brochure about every service the bank offers into a very large garbage can sitting in the middle of the lobby. Then I'd douse the pile o' info with lighter fluid, toss in a match (preferably lit) and yell "You are free! You are free!" while it burned.

Free from what? The chains that bind employees to the idea that a shiny, expensive to produce brochure is why people have driven across town to see them instead of just Googling to find the same brochure info, at home.

You and I and the two other people who are reading this are not made of paper. We are flesh and bone, heart and soul, filled with dreams and ambition. The idea that any of us can be touched, moved or engaged by anything less is an affront to our humanity.

When you and I physically walk into a place of business looking for information about something, we're not there looking for information about something; that's not why we justify fighting traffic and crowds to get there.

We validate the physical journey because we're on an emotional one, of pain, fear and uncertainty - and we're looking for someone to ease it.

And YOU thought you shopped because it's two for one hoagie day at Dahl's.

We shop - for bread, Buicks and banks - because we're searching for someone to wrap their metaphorical arms around us and tell us that no matter what's bothering us, no matter what emptiness there is in our lives, they're going to make it okay, they're going to fill the void. Help us. Heal us. Love us.

That's why brochures suck.

They and all their printed ilk are the single greatest impediment for businesses and their employees to actually making a real, honest, deep, compassionate, long-lasting connection with consumers - and the businesses are the ones that print them!

Lose the brochure. Trust what you know. And what you don't know, learn. Then let go of it, and grab onto what's important: the pain and frustration of the person in front of you.

Becky thankfully ignored my just-completed bloated diatribe and pleasantly mentioned that ISB is "a locally owned bank, and we don't change our name every other day."

I love the first part. I less than love the second part.

Negatives don't prove a positive, Becky. They just prove that a company will toss their competitors under a bus in order to gain footing with a customer. That makes the company saying it look bad, not the company they're saying it about.

You've been in business, under the same name and locally owned, since 1941. Go with that.

Becky explained the different aspects of different accounts but didn't ask me what I valued first, or most, or why I specifically didn't like the bank I was with, or even what I DID like about it, which is an extremely clever position for someone in her position to take, but is rarely taken.

Becky asked what kind of company I owned but didn't ask anything else about it or show interest in finding out more, just because I'm so darn fascinating.

Becky said a very nice "thank you" through a beautiful smile, and tossed in a fantastic invitation to "come back and see us!" Awesome touch, Becky!

You've got the interpersonal tools, Becky. Use them. Engage, engage, engage - and leave that pile of brochures alone; they'll just get in your way.  :)


3818 Hubbell Avenue, Des Moines


Phone greeting: "Iowa State Bank office at Hubbell. May I help you?" (Nope - just callin numbers at random)

Drive-thru greeting: "Hello." (pleasant)

Teller greeting: "Hello." (without a smile)


Wendi had a really pretty nameplate by her teller window, that included a cute smiley face. She also had a sign in her TW that said Next window, please. The other two tellers on either side of her sign were present but didn't have name plates, although they did each have a customer.

As soon as Sammi was fini with hers, she shot me an unsmiling but pleasant enough "Hi," then walked back and told Ryan he had some knucklehead out front who needed glad-handled.

Next time, Sammi, ask me for my name and tell it to Ryan, then he can greet me by it. That's smoooooth.

Ryan flashed a slight smile as he approached but didn't reach out to shake my hand, didn't introduce himself and didn't ask for my name.

Told ya, Sammi! :)

Ryan went to the brochure right away, spreading it out on his desk. He then asked me the only question he'd ask me the entire five minutes we "talked.": What kind of business ownership did I have?

Sole proprietor - just little ole' me.

From that point, Ryan talked without break and with great detail and knowledge about ISB's business accounts. He mentioned that ISB was family-owned (although "not by the same family") since 1941 and were "not going anywhere." He occasionally looked me in the eye but spent as much time looking at the brochure he was pointing at.

The problem is that he never really included me in the "conversation." Ryan, you were tight, smart, detailed and professional; it was a bit like watching a Power Point presentation. But at some point you've got to ask me a question so I feel like I'm being engaged instead of talked at. What you said and how you said it was accurate. Now make it important to me, by making me important to you.

Ryan, like everyone else, didn't ask for my contact information. But unlike some of the others, he did ask my name - albeit at the end of the convo, but quite endearingly: "I didn't catch your name and should have asked it at the beginning."

At that point he shook my hand, reintroduced himself and made it a point to say my name outloud several more times - nice recovery, Ryan!

Still, you've got to ask me about me, about my business - what I do, how it's going, where's my office, all that good stuff.

A very good reason to be more engaging is because this particular Iowa State Bank location is located at a spot on Hubbell that is undergoing lots of road construction; getting in and out of there is a real challenge, especially in late afternoon when I visited.

Ryan, you know this firsthand since you have to fight the traffic every day heading and from work. Remember that effort, value others who go through it to get to you and treat them like you get it, because you do.

You've got what Lauren has: charisma. God gave that to you, and to her. Now give yourself permission to be empathetic, to really care about your customers, and they might just care right back.

It's funny how that sometimes works. :)


6410 SW 9th Street, Des Moines


Phone greeting: "Iowa State Bank (indecipherable) this is Tiffany." (very pleasantly delivered but delivery should be slowed down)

Drive-thru greeting: "Hello." (faint and hard to hear, especially with heavy traffic nearby on Army Post Road)

Teller greeting: "Hello" (nice enough but without a smile)


Carla and her co-worker were working with customers at the teller counter; Carla flashed an occasional smile. Her scowling counter partner looked like she'd just read one of my blog posts.

Shoppers look at the faces of employees for cues about how they're supposed to feel about shopping there; they want to feel happy about their choice. If staff look perturbed, unhappy, miserable, confused or like they work at American TV and Appliance, they'll start looking for the emotional exit, until their feet find the real one.

I was soon waited on by an unsmiling but pleasant Carla, who went back and got Gary, the VP, who came out from his office and said, charmingly and with a slight smile: "Hello...can I help you?"

My own disappeared.

You've been in the banking biz longer than I've been abusing checking accounts, Gary. That clunkly closed-ended question is not befitting a man of your experience, knowledge and charm. Ask me if you can help me, and I'm likely to think that you can't. Ask me how you can help me, and I'm inclined to believe that you can.

Can't, stinks. Can, rocks.

Gary cordially invited me to sit down in his office and quickly went to his ISB Ace-In-The-Hole: the brochure.

He explained benefits sort of matter of factly, and asked me an occasional question, including "What's your usual minimum monthly balance?"

"$100,000," I managed without cracking up.

Gary dug the response; he smiled like he hadn't been smilin and engaged like he hadn't been engagin.

This just in: money talks.

Gary talked about having me bring in a bank statement, to see which of their programs might work best - nice job! He also introduced himself, asked for my name and shook my hand - albeit at the end.

Would he have done so had I taken off a few zeros from that monthly balance? Probably - but perhaps with a bit less vigor.

Treat us all like we're worth a million bucks, Gary, and, who knows? Someday, when we actually are, there's a much better chance that we'll keep our jack in your bank. :)

One aside: When I told Gary my name was Jonnie, he responded, "Jon? Okay...I mean, 'Jonnie.'"

Bad misstep, nice recovery. To see how I feel about the first part, read another Secret Shopper review, by clicking this sentence.

Unfortunately, Gary, you - like everyone else I met at every other Iowa State Bank location - didn't ask me for my contact information.

I have no idea what Iowa State Bank's policy is, but if anything about it changes because of this review, I hope it's that. It should be mandatory for Iowa State Bank employees to at least ask for a potential consumer's email address, at the absolute least.

If the relationship has been built during the meeting, if the employee has engaged and asked questions, if the walls that separate people who've just met have been knocked down, then much of a shopper's resistence to offering this info will be knocked down with it.

What have you got to lose? Ask, and ye just might receive. :)


3601 EP True Parkway, West Des Moines


Phone greeting:  "Iowa State Bank, this is (indecipherable), can I help you?" (Slow down the delivery and try an open-ended question)

Drive-thru greeting:  "Hello!" (VERY pleasant, and happily delivered)

Teller greeting: "Hello. How can I help you?" (with a slight smile - nice open-ended question!)


There was a nice Welcome to Iowa State Bank sign welcoming me as I entered the branch location.

The welcoming ways continued as the woman at the counter (whose name I did not get) greeted from the teller's counter with a nice salutation and open-ended question. Nice job!

After I explained that I wanted to know more about their business accounts, she quickly opened up a brochure and began pointing out different biz act features.

That's fine and dandy for the bank chain stores of the world. 

But you're Iowa State Bank: emphasis on Iowa, emphasis on local, emphasis on customer service. That means introducing yourself and asking me my name - and probably not at the teller window, but at a desk where we can sit down and chat, and you can ask me all about my business and laugh at my stupid jokes and make me feel spoiled rotten, so I leave and tell on my friends on Twitter and Facebook and email and text, "You would not BELIEVE the amazing customer service I got at Iowa State Bank on EP True today from this extraordinary young woman! You've got to go see her!!"

That's how you grow your business - one insanely happy texting FB'ing TW'ing emailing calling customer at a time.

She did ask me what kind of business I had, but didn't ask a lot of other questions. She did smile and thank me at the end, and said "Have a good one" as I headed towards the door - very nice.

But here's why nice doesn't really cut it.

Someone who owns a business took the time to walk into yours to express dissatisfaction with one of your competitors, along with a strong desire to find a replacement. Those are major-league buying signals - whether you're selling cars, clothes or small business checking accounts.

Yet you let that person walk out of your store without getting his name, the name of his business or any way to follow up with him. He's some anonymous dude who just cost you $3.79 in brochure printing and central air electricity costs cause he held the front door open while he read what was on it. And your return investment on four bucks? Probably $0.00 because he probably won't come back because you didn't give him the best reason in the world to do so: act like you want him to.

You were kind, had great eye contact and occasionally smiled. Now multiply everything you did well by 100, and there will be no confusion on my part as to whether I'm inside an ISB, or a B of A. Ok? :)


2301 128th Street, Urbandale


Phone greeting: (after 9 rings...most consumers would hang up after 3) "Iowa State Bank, this is Lauren." (pleasantly delivered, with a smile in her voice)

Drive-thru greeting: "Good afternoon."

Teller greeting: "Hello. What can I help you with?" (delivered pleasantly and open-endedly - nice job!)


The signs "welcoming" me into ISB included:

No soliciting

24 hour video surveillance. Motion detection alarms. No baseball caps or sunglasses.

Come on in!

I get the second one - you've got to protect company security. But how about the emotional security of your customers? The first sign, combined with the second, is less than inviting. So dampen the effect; put up a nice Welcome to Iowa State Bank sign, like they have at the E.P. True Parkway location.

Beth gave every sign that she wanted me insider her bank, expressing a very warm, pleasant "Hi. How can I help you?" from behind the teller counter as I entered.

I told her I was a big-shot business owner who'd made it big in mood rings and thought pet rocks were poised to make a comeback, and wanted info on their business accounts.

She quickly handed me over to Lauren. But not before I headed to the men's room, which was pitch black when I entered because the light sensor couldn't sense me - darn diet! (Tip on the dope rhyme to boys ages 3-90: Never ever ever think you can go potty, accurately, in the dark.)

Back in the lobby, Lauren greeted with a very nice "Hi. Come on in. My name is Lauren." As I told her my handle, she reached out her hand to shake mine and gripped it with the force I'd use to pick up the tail end of a dead rat.

This is going to sound ridiculous, Lauren, but remember, I'm the guy who could barely open the bathroom door; find someone you trust who is over the age of 40 and not a chick, and practice shaking their hand. Do it over and over and over and over until you get over being afraid of doing so. Why? Because the you way you shake hands with someone is a really big deal and can set the tone, good or not so much, for everything that happens after it

Remember my little ditty: Shake nice and firm, their trust you'll earn, shake limp and soft, you'll scare them off, don't shake at all, go work at the mall.  

Lauren flashed a very nice smile a time or two as she explained all the features of ISB's different business accounts. She also maintained good eye contact as she pointed at the brochure, which is awesome - stay locked in instead of looking down where you're pointing. Great job, Lauren!

She asked a few questions - what kind of business did I have, was it a single owner, how much would I normally be keeping in it - which helped her hone in on which account might work best for me. She also asked me to bring in a statement from my other bank so she could help me hone even more.

Very nice work, Lauren!

The honing stopped when I got up to leave, thanking her. She stayed seated, said "um-hm," and turned back towards her computer screen. I extended my hand, which she saw out of the corner of her eye; she shook it, still seated, still meekly.


I don't have to tell you why that's wrong, Lauren, and how to do it right. 

Overall you were engaging, had a wonderful smile, great eye contact and did a tremendous job explaining features and benefits.

But you really didn't try to get to know me. And as a consumer, that makes me extremly uninterested in wanting to get to know your company. You are the gatekeeper between me and the people who sign your checks.

So tend your flock - me - and I'll not wander, ever.

Some specific things to work on would include saying my name outloud after I've given it to you and throughout our conversation, asking me for the name of my business, asking me more questions about what my business does and how business has been - a pretty obvious question to ask, especially in this economy.

Also, work on the personal chit-chat - the kind of conversation that knocks down walls between people who have never met. This builds trust, and plants seeds that can grow into a long-term business relationship, because it ain't about doing business, it's about doing business with friends. And you've got to get my contact information, Lauren, AND follow up, otherwise you're making me feel like you think I'm some dude who came stumbling into your crib wanting to start a lawn mowing biz out of his folk's basement.

I'm being hard on you because you have "potential rock star" etched beside your name on your office window, Lauren - right below Assistant Branch Manager.

Now go work it, girl. :)


Iowa State Bank has some good things going for it:

1. ISB employees are consistently quick to greet and smile.

2. ISB locations are ornate and beautiful inside and out, befitting an institution that wants to exude that "trust us with your jack" vibe.

3. ISB is locally owned, knows it and uses that fact to its marketing advantage.

4. ISB's website is easy to maneuver.


There is also room for improvement:

1. Employees need to work smarter, not harder to connect with potential customers; get their names, use them in conversation, ask the extra question (and not a closed-ended one), get contact info and follow up, make them feel at home - because that's what your marketing says you'll do.

2. The drive-thru at all five ISB locations opens an hour later than most of its competitors, at 8:30; your company is losing customers and revenue to other banks who understand that consumers often want to do some quick, convenient banking on their way to work and can't always make it to your locations before they close at 5:30pm. There are also audio issues at every drive-thru; it can be VERY hard to hear what the teller says. That's frustrating for customers who aren't terribly happy to be sitting in a drive-thru line in the first place.

3. ISB has no Twitter or Facebook pages, or blog; again, there's an opportunity to reach out to current and potential customers, 80% (and growing) of which are using those portals.

4. The website needs a pass or two with an intellectual and creative mop - pictures in the "Photo Gallery" are two years old, there are occasional punctuation, capitalization, spelling and word use errors (Example: "Wealth Management" page, third line, second sentence, sixth word - you've got "principals" when it should be "principles." I'm guilty, too!) and the entire site feels a bit static.

A bank is obviously doing a lot of things right if it has survived in the banking industry for almost 70 years, and Iowa State Bank doesn't need some blogger to clap them on the back and congratulate them on the obvious. Although, okay, why not? NICE JOB, ISB!!

But the stark, cold water in your face financial reality of 2010 is that the game has changed, all bets are off and I'm looking for one more cliché.

Simply put, you've got to be damn near perfect if you want to keep the doors open and the payroll paid. That level of perfection, at least in my world, starts with a perfect smile and greeting, and ends with the perfectly (hand) written follow-up.

Would any of that have helped the 120 banks that went down the toilet the past nine months? Let me put it this way: It wouldn't have made them fail any sooner.

Iowa State Bank isn't there yet - they're not failing, and they're not perfect, not by a long stretch. But they can get closer to the latter and help protect themselves from the former if they want to - if. To paraphrase Tom Petty, the wanting is the hardest part.

After that, it's truly as easy as 1-2-3, I-S-B!

Wow. I think I just wrote another line for their mission statement.


Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.      


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Phone: 515-480-4190    


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