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The Secret of a Sustainable Sales Culture

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: October 2013

"Make it personal and make it purposeful." Daniel H. Pink, To Sell is Human

Sales culture is a term of great familiarity to anyone who has been employed by a financial institution in the past few decades. Mention "sales culture" in a room full of bankers, or former bankers, and you'll get nods of acknowledgement, more than a few looks of disgust, and one or two panicked expressions from those who suddenly feel ill as they recall the stress. For something that seems so universal among financial institution employees, why would the experiences elicit such different and deeply felt responses? Naturally, like many other business "trends of the month," sales cultures have been implemented in numerous places to varying degrees of success. Some have done remarkably well, some have had limited success that didn't last, and others can only be viewed as epic disasters.

Where did the idea for sales culture come from in the financial services world? Like most new and shiny initiatives, there was an obvious need to do something different. In banking, the pressures of competition and the desire and/or need for increased income convinced someone, somewhere, that more products needed to be pushed into the hands of consumers. If you were around and remember that far back, once upon a time the classic incentive for new customers to open accounts was some fabulous small appliance. New banks brought new incentives to account holders, interest rates were high, and the race for the perfect toaster-chasing customers was on.

The stress was soon building for financial institution employees to increase sales. As the years progressed, tellers, branch managers, and loan production staff were expected to produce growing sales numbers. Instead of simply serving customers, these employees had sales goals and quotas to meet, and their compensation, in many cases, was incentive based. On the mortgage side, especially, lenders who brought in the most business could make quite a lucrative living. The concern was less about the customer, and more about the level of production. Employees were well trained in sales techniques such as "overcoming objections" and "closing the deal" and the work environments could be brutally competitive.

Many of us who started in banking in the 80s and 90s grew up in the culture of hard sales and had to learn fast to compete or find another line of work. I always felt fortunate to have received the benefit of great training at my first job in banking, but as with many of my banking colleagues, jumped ship for a credit union when that opportunity arose. Credit unions were up and coming options for consumers at that time. They were still a very well-kept secret in Maine in the late 80s, just beginning to expand product lines and offer more traditional banking products such as mortgage loans. As credit unions were starting to gain greater traction with consumers, I joined the staff of a small credit union where my responsibility, as time went on, was to build the mortgage program and implementing a sales culture. Mortgages I knew, and I could confidently and accurately produce a healthy portfolio the way I had been taught at the bank. Sales culture was much more of a challenge. I had seen it, and had no intention of modeling what I had experienced because of the negative "win at all costs" culture that incentives, in particular, had created among otherwise good and talented people.

Where, then, to begin with sales culture for my three-person, fairly inexperienced staff? We knew we needed greater loan volume. We knew we had good products, competitive rates, and a loyal membership. I knew the staff was eager to learn and motivated to succeed. What they needed was a common institutional goal, encouragement to set personal goals, a vision of where we wanted to be, someone to support their efforts, and a sense that what they were doing mattered to and was in the best interest of the members whom they served. Voila! There were no incentives, the internal competitive pressure was friendly, and we had a sales success rate that was envious. That was the fun part of that job.

Eventually, I moved on to an opportunity at another credit union. The loan department was significantly larger, but new technologies were just being implemented, and sales culture was a much longer-term plan. The board of directors and staff were leery of "hard" selling, and since there were no immediate pressures on income, the plan was set aside for other, competing development needs. As the years progressed, we brought in lenders with sales experience who gradually helped us turn from an order-taking loan department with a credit committee that reviewed the previous day's applications to an active group of lenders with lending authority who were encouraged to turn around loans as quickly as possible. Our credit union still struggled with loaning out the funds on deposit, but income was healthy, risk was minimal, and there wasn't much to worry about as our assets continued to grow and outpace all other Maine credit unions.

A well-run, financially healthy financial institution is a great place to work if you're looking for stability. That same institution, operating the same way year after year, isn't a super exciting place to be if you're seeking bold vision. We found ourselves in a pattern of satisfaction with the status quo, didn't pay as much attention to employee growth and engagement as we could have, and when the recession hit and stayed, we started to struggle with income. At the same time, we lost ground in total loans, weren't seeing the results that we wanted, and in truth, weren't treating each other in a very supportive manner. It was every department for itself, and blame and frustration were a familiar part of our work days.

The immediate need for us was to honestly address who we were in terms of organizational culture. It was easy to agree that the culture we had become, including who we were individually, was not what we truly aspired to be. It wasn't a process that we could have accomplished without the knowledgeable and steady guidance of the fine people at Priority Learning. There were some hard realities to face, and some changes that we all had to make. Two eventful years later, as a result of the dedicated work of a determined group of people, we are well on our way to realizing our institutional goal of being a support and achievement based organization where expectations and behavioral standards are clear, and where learning and growth are encouraged in order for all of us to serve our members at the highest possible level.

I know what you're thinking. It's great to have happy and engaged employees, but if you're truly going to be engaged in sales, how will you keep employees motivated to produce month after month on happiness alone? Admittedly, our sales (and service) initiative is still fairly new, but our approach is unique in that incentives were never part of the discussion. Nor do we focus on ancillary products, at least not yet. We decided to focus on across-the-product-line growth, and have not focused on just one type of loan.

At the beginning of the sale initiative, the message that we shared was knowledge of our business model and what we needed for growth, a vision for the credit union of what we could be with their help, and the sense that what they were doing every day mattered to, and was in the best interest of, the members whom they knew so well and served every day. I'm not sure they could have felt much more empowered, as lenders, than when we said to them: we need loans, and we trust you to do the right thing for the credit union and for members.

We made it personal, and we made it purposeful. We started with lenders, shared the same message with managers and supervisors, and will have shared it with every employee before year-end. It isn't perfect, and it isn't a business model that will work for everyone, but our current loan growth is at a level that we have never reached before and feels strong and sustainable.

So what's the secret to building a sales culture that will last? It's to start by building an organizational culture that will last. If you want sales and service achievement from your employees, make sure they have a strong foundation of support. You'll be amazed by the results.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at