Talk Story: Eric Yeaman, President and COO, First Hawaiian Bank

Eric Yeaman was named 2018’s Salesperson of the Year by the Honolulu chapter of Sales and Marketing Executives. Cheryl Oncea continues a Hawaii Business publishers’ tradition by interviewing this year’s honoree about sales and leadership.

Q: You are being recognized as salesperson of the year. What does sales mean in the banking business?

Yeaman: For First Hawaiian Bank, sales really means relationship banking. What has made the bank successful is its relationship management strategy. I know this because I was a customer a lot longer than I’ve been working at the bank. The relationships I established with the folks here were long-term relationships. They were focused on my needs, not necessarily on making a sale. If there is a need, you fill it. If there is not a need, you don’t force it.

I’ve also learned in business that sometimes customers can be educated about needs. So if you have an idea that you think fits a need they have but don’t yet know, you take that opportunity as well. But foremost, it’s about a caring relationship, where you really want to do what’s best for your customer.

Q: What specific things do you do to maintain a high level of customer service and customer focus?

Yeaman: The larger companies have bankers assigned to them who call them frequently, and the companies know who their banker is and call them. That flows down to small businesses and retail customers.

But there are not enough bankers to cover everybody, so we use data analytics to help us identify what customers’ needs are, given where in the life cycle they’re at, so we can be proactive and offer something that’s relevant to their needs. I think our goal is to reach out to the right customer, at the right time, through the right channel, with the right offer that best meets their needs. Today, there are a lot of tools and data that we gather and analyze to help us better do that. And that’s evolving, as are customer expectations.

Q: Sales and banking are both competitive businesses in Hawaii, but this community is also good at collaborating. How do you balance collaboration and competition?

Yeaman: In the banking industry, collaboration’s been done for many years. If there’s a large financing deal, we tend to syndicate that deal with other banks. That’s an opportunity to partner. There are protocols we all learn to follow in those situations and, of course, if somebody breaks those protocols, then you have to revisit whether you can continue to collaborate with that partner. But it’s been done for many, many, many years successfully within the industry, as well as in the local community.

There’s natural friction between competition and collaboration because we all want to be successful. We all feel we’re better at serving the customer than our competitors. I think that the competition is healthy; it makes us better. It forces you every day to think about serving the customer better.

Q: Can you give an example?

Yeaman: A couple of years ago we implemented customer experience solutions that allow us to survey our customers after they’ve just had an experience with us. We get their results instantaneously and can do something about it right away. Turn an experience that wasn’t quite satisfactory to the customer and make it a “wow” experience, because people don’t expect you to respond to the feedback. When you do, it blows them away.

Q: Is it like, “If you stay on the line, you can take our survey”?

Yeaman: I find that phone surveys are valuable, but email surveys tend to be more valuable because people tend to be more candid. If they are speaking to somebody, they are not as candid.

It’s a web-based solution that basically knows who we sent it to, who their specific banker is and if there is a response. If the response ranking is below a threshold, it requires a follow-up within x amount of time, and if it doesn’t get followed up by then, it gets escalated to that person’s supervisor.

So there is an accountability structure with the customer’s needs in mind and not necessarily to be punitive to our employees. You know where you are from a customer experience standpoint, so you can set goals and targets, not just for the company, but by branch or by groups of employees. If somebody is struggling, you can coax that employee in hopes they can become successful, and it benefits them and the bank. Versus trying to do broad based training, you can be very focused and efficient. The customer’s verbatim comments allow you to prioritize the many things you may need to do to keep improving your customer’s experience.

Q: Do you see the customer’s exact words?

Yeaman: I do. You have to make time, because the customer’s voice is one of the most important things.

One thing I like to do is visit customers. This past year, on a one-on-one basis, I think I visited almost 200 customers. And that doesn’t include group meetings.

Q: That’s something I wouldn’t have thought, given your schedule.

Yeaman: You have to be intentional. So I set time, full days, with regional managers, and they set up calls where I visit with different customers on all the Hawaiian Islands, and then Guam and Saipan as well.

These are one-on-one customer meetings. My preference is to go to their place of business, and a lot of them are so proud of their business. They take you on a tour and you learn a lot more about what they’ve done and what they’re trying to do. Then you can better help them. You have to stay in touch with your customer’s needs/desires to be relevant.

Many years ago when I was a very young CFO, a president of a company visited me. The next year he visited me again. It made an impact on me. I said, “If I ever become president or CEO, I’m going to do that,” because that was something that made an impact on me as a customer. It gave me an opportunity to share things that I was enjoying about the relationship and share areas where they could be improved. 

This interview was edited for conciseness.

SME Luncheon
The luncheon honoring Eric Yeaman is Tuesday, March 13 at the Sheraton Waikiki. To register, click here.

Categories: Innovation, Leadership, Success Stories, Talk Story