Results Come from Relationships

Case Study: Benchmark Community Bank

In today’s business culture, can a bank attain great bottom line results without merging, acquiring another bank, or adopting a sales culture? According to Jay Stafford—President and CEO of Benchmark Community Bank in Kenbridge, Virginia—the answer is yes.

Bottom Line Results

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jay. A Fredericksburg native, Jay married a Southside girl and moved to Lunenburg County, a mostly agricultural area near her hometown of Blackstone, where tobacco was once the primary cash crop. Although he has seen the area deteriorate over the years, he is very passionate about what he does there and wants to make a difference in this community. He knows that Benchmark Community Bank is one of the larger employers in the area, and if Benchmark went away, then the town would be severely impacted.

Jay said that 50% of his employees have been with Benchmark less than five years, not because of turnover but because of growth. He said their culture has been instrumental in contributing to that growth.

In his own words, here’s how Jay Stafford has grown Benchmark Community Bank and its great bottom line results through building the right culture.


When I became President and CEO after 25+ years with Benchmark, I became more convinced that buying a bank was not the best thing to do for us, even though many others were buying and selling banks.

The culture we had built in our rural markets was one of the keys to our success. The Benchmark way of doing things and a strong internal employee friendly culture was what differentiated us from our competitors. It was about finding ways to say yes and having an open, trusting, team-oriented culture. Being nimble by being able to make quick decisions was key. Without that, we were just like everyone else. By growing slowly, one branch at a time, we could bring in new employees either new to banking or from other banks and mold them into how we do things. Then, move on to another branch. One at a time.


Not a sales culture


In 2003, we realized that the “order taker” mentality that had been prevalent since the bank opened in 1971 would no longer result in the financial performance the bank had been accustomed to in the past. Competition from other banks with sales cultures was creating a threat to Benchmark’s market share. Observing how unpopular the sales culture was at other banks with its employees, I knew that “sales” would not be the right approach for us. Also, customers in rural markets like ours don’t like to be sold to and pressured by employee solicitation phone calls and employees badgering them every time they enter the bank about buying the “product of the month.”

One of my counterparts that ran retail bank branches told me the approach I was going to take would never work: “You can’t create sales through relationship building, but only by making the employees sell and making them accountable through quotas.” But we committed ourselves to the relationship building model and knew it could work for us.

I wanted to avoid the high turnover rates at big banks due to the pressure of selling and I knew I could create happy, fulfilled employees without making them sell. I knew we could grow our bank by building a trusting relationship with a customer vs. pressured sales. This would also create trust between management and the employees.


Selling without selling


So, in 2003, we brought in an outside consultant to work with our employees in small groups to discuss how we could “sell without selling.” We changed the mindset. I assured our employees at that time and every opportunity after that that we would not be going to a sales culture. However, we needed to become more proactive in learning our products and services, listening to the customers for clues for unmet financial needs, and not being afraid to engage them.

So, in 2003, Enhancing Customer Relationships (ECR) was born at Benchmark. We expected our employees to have dialogue with customers, versus just filling an order, but focus on the proper relationship building habits with no sales quotas. The result was a happy workforce that did what was best for the customer and through that built trust with the customer while receiving a personal sense of fulfillment from helping someone meet their financial needs.

It’s not selling, it’s doing what’s right for the customer at the time. A sale is created on its own through ECR. No quotas or bonuses. The results I feel have been much better than the selling the big banks do. We’ve grown and prospered.


Bottom Line Results


At the end of 2002, before ECR, the bank had nine branches and $265MM in assets, Today, we have 16 branches with a 17th in the works. We have over $700MM in assets. For thirteen straight years, we’ve been rated one of the top 200 banks in the US by American Banker magazine and are consistently one of the top five to ten banks in Virginia. But none of it was accomplished by “selling.”


For more information about Benchmark Community Bank, visit


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Robert McFarland is the author of the bestsellers, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew and Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew. Robert is also President of Transformational Impact LLC, a leadership development consultancy helping companies improve their employee cultures to make the companies healthier, more productive, and more profitable.


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