What do commercial bankers actually do?

Commercial banks offer highly sought after graduate programs. Before you apply, find out exactly what's involved in being a commercial banker.
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So, now you understand what a commercial bank does and the different types of organisations out there but what do people working in a commercial bank actually do? The answer is lots of things!

While the bread and butter of commercial banking still lies in managing the profit and growth of specific banking products or portfolios, there are a myriad of other areas and roles that help support this objective.

You can think about these areas in two broad categories:

1. Front office – Includes the bank branches, call centres, relationship managers and other customer-facing areas of the bank. Front office staff will work directly with retail and business clients to determine their banking needs and propose products and solutions to match.

2. Corporate (head) office – Relates to all support and strategic functions that drive overall decision-making and ongoing operations. This includes a diverse set of activities and roles that may involve setting product strategy, pricing a portfolio, driving marketing campaigns, evaluating credit risk, developing digital app features or generating customer analytics and insights.

The activities that you perform as a commercial banker vary depending on these front office or corporate office roles.

1. Front office – what do they do?

Whether for retail or business clients, front office employees undertake a number of activities that are core to their role in developing and managing customer relationships. Their focus is on ensuring direct customer relationships are maintained and client needs are met.

While these relationships will differ in quantity and quality based on the type of role (e.g. commercial or high net worth clients get more tailored treatment relative to an everyday individual), the core skills and activities remain the same:

  • Lead generation: What do our customers look like? Who should we be targeting? How do we reach them? What will get their attention? Front office roles need to get customers through the door, and answering these questions are an important part of that process. Identifying and creating client leads is an important first step in the customer relationship.
  • Identifying customer needs: The customer is always right! A keen focus on the customer, their financial situation and subsequent needs is critical to any successful front office role. Through conversations and dialogue, front office staff need to connect with a client, ask the right questions, uncover their motivations and determine the ‘why’ behind financial goals.
  • Sales and conversion: Sales are king in banking (and business in general), but selling is not. While converting leads into sales is a key component of front office, successful staff avoid pushy selling or ‘flogging’ products. The key to good sales is a clear understanding of customer needs, superior customer service, and an ability to determine the right choice of product and solution that will genuinely benefit the client (and not just the bank’s pocket).
  • Relationship management: Long-term success lies in the ability to cultivate and maintain lasting customer relationships. Keeping these relationships alive and well involves being able to respond to customer needs on an ongoing basis, resolve and take accountability for issues, and continue to connect and build trust with clients.

2. Corporate office – what do they do?

Head office roles are extremely varied and diverse, spanning across different disciplines and functions. Just like front office though, there are some fundamental activities that will broadly underpin all of these areas:

  • Research: The only constants in life are death, taxes and… change! Important to any role in the corporate office is ongoing research to understand and interpret relevant developments and changes in banking. It’s even more important to be able to ask the right questions to sift through and filter the wealth of information out there. Where is the market heading? Which trends do we need to pay attention to? What are our competitors doing? What do our customers want? Unlike common responses to a university assignment, this research can take more forms than just googling some stuff on your computer. In addition to reports and financial statements, research can involve customer interviews, observing and documenting processes or deploying digital testing.
  • Analysis: It’s all about your evidence, fact-base and data! Building a clear argument and rationale for your recommendations relies strongly on a logical and analytical approach. In the diverse roles of the corporate office, this could involve anything from crunching the numbers on a pricing change, estimating the benefit of your strategy, quantifying the risk of a loan approval, or setting and measuring targets for a marketing campaign. The point is, as a commercial banker you will be providing recommendations for whatever your role entails – and that will always involve a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis.
  • Presentation and communication: Similar to management consulting, commercial bankers will often ‘talk’ to each other through powerpoint. Having a bunch of good research, sound analysis and insightful data points can be meaningless if you don’t know how to synthesise and communicate this to the right decision makers. Building a powerpoint ‘pack’ or ‘deck’ is all about the flow and storyline that you can create to articulate your argument. This means commercial bankers not only have to be skilled at pulling together a great ‘deck’ but also at understanding how to best communicate and connect with their audience.
  • Stakeholder management: There are a tonne of people working in different functions at a commercial bank. With this comes the added dimension of understanding and managing your stakeholders. This means being able to anticipate what your stakeholders’ motivations are, how your work may affect them, how to have a conversation or dialogue with them and what you need to do to gain their ‘buy-in’ and endorsement. As an example, a product manager at a commercial bank will regularly need to work with finance, marketing, pricing, distribution, digital, customer experience, compliance and IT stakeholders (to name a few).
  • Project or campaign management: With all these core skills ticked off, the crowning requirement for a commercial banker is the ability to effectively manage a project or campaign. This might sound like a big job, but there are plenty of projects going on in a bank at one time, and a small project can be a one-person gig organised between yourself and your manager. As a grad, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to own and lead projects throughout different rotations. In fact, this is often the key component of a graduate rotation. Being able to define the objectives of a project, identify and engage the right people, determine the analysis and research required, and manage a timeline with deadlines and deliverables are all critical parts of the project management toolkit.

How does this work for a grad?

Graduate programs at a commercial bank are fast-paced and among some of the most diverse programs around. They typically allow you to rotate through different areas of the bank (usually with at least one front office rotation) to understand which career path you’d like to pursue after the program.

These programs will generally develop graduates for corporate office, however, you will have the opportunity to develop your desired career path throughout the program and beyond.

It’s important to note that while graduate programs at a commercial bank are a great way to get into corporate office, this isn’t the only route. Depending on your chosen area, entry-level roles at a commercial bank are routinely advertised.

Moreover, commercial bankers often begin working in front office with the opportunity to move into corporate office later if they wish. Alternatively, many forge a career in front office and work their way up through these roles long-term.

Up next: key areas of commercial banking.