The “red phone” rang and Ray Davis, then CEO of Umpqua Bank, answered. “This is Ray Davis of the World’s Greatest Bank. How can I help you?”
“The streetcar’s not doing it. Why’d you paint it blue?”
Davis, who many credit with re-inventing the customer approach to community banking, recognized the caller as the same person who had called several times before, from one of Umpqua’s stores in Seattle. Davis knew from those prior calls that the caller was mentally unstable.
Davis thought of ways of getting off the phone as politely as possible as the woman’s voice began to rise to a yell. Simultaneously, he worried about the employees in the Seattle store. Eventually, he wished the woman “a great day,” said goodbye, and hung up. He then immediately called the store manager, who he imagined felt horrible about the incident and might even be in a difficult—perhaps dangerous—situation.
I asked Davis if, at that time, he wished he hadn’t started the “red phone” idea. After participating in an Umpqua employee-training program, conducted by hospitality experts with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel chain, Davis had the phones installed in every Umpqua store. Over time, this “red phone” became a trademark of the bank where customers can pick up the phone and call the CEO directly. In response to my question he said, “no, not at all. I knew that the store manager was probably sick about the call and worrying that I was put out. So I called the store and said, ‘So tell me, are you guys okay?’ The manager said, ‘Oh, Ray, we’re sorry.’ I said, ‘No, no, don’t be sorry. That’s okay. You have anybody call me that you want to call, and don’t worry about that. I just want to make sure you guys are all right. And if somebody does come into your store who really is disruptive, don’t hesitate to call the police.”
That second phone call solidified a personal connection between Davis and the store manager. He flipped the circumstances with that call. He transformed a situation from being an annoying, maybe even disturbing, incident that disrupted his day into something that the bank manager benefited from because he took the time to call her, inquire about the employees’ safety, reassure them that he wasn’t upset, and allowed them to feel important, in a sense. But, first and foremost, his return call demonstrated that he cares about them—and that’s what relationship building is all about.
Davis well understood that relationship building serves as a key element in the process of “fusing” teams together around a shared goal. Umpqua’s well-known success in the years that followed tells the rest of the story.