Banks can’t abandon sales focus

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I’ve encountered an increasing number of bank managers with a fear of sales coaching — ever since regulators fined Wells Fargo for its sales practices nearly two years ago.

One middle manager explained how difficult it had become to even talk about sales numbers with her teams. She said that her senior management was incredibly sensitive to how team members are being coached on their sales figures for new account openings, even if those goals still matter to an organization.

I’ve been reminding groups recently that we are approaching the second anniversary of sales goals in banking becoming analogous to Lord Voldemort (“He-who-must-not-be-named”) for fear of retribution.

Yet financial institutions need to be careful that they don't overcorrect in their vigilance.

I’m sympathetic to banking leaders over the past two years feeling the need to be overly cautious in the face of regulatory uncertainty and media scrutiny. Just about every bank I’m familiar with went through exhaustive reviews to be certain they were not promoting or allowing illicit activities.

But when I find myself in these conversations, I always make one point first: Yes, of course, we never want to do anything remotely unethical, let alone illegal. I am all for a zero-tolerance policy on unethical sales practices. Leaders need to decide where the lines are drawn, clearly and regularly communicate with their teams where those lines are and proactively enforce their standards.

That said, I fear that some banks continue to make two common errors. First, their accepted sales practices and policies are not as crystal clear to employees as they should be. That opens up the possibilities that employees are unknowingly doing things that fall on the wrong side of those stated policies.

What I find happening more, however, is that unsure employees are simply not looking to engage in many sales activities at all. A lack of clarity is not leading to rampant inappropriate sales activities, but to fewer sales activities. Yet this contributes not just to fewer sales, but to poorer service. Customers who are not aware of the larger menu of products and services available to them are not receiving full service.

The fact that there are some in our industry who do not understand that this is not a good or sustainable situation is likely caused by the second mistake I observe, which is that too many organizations have allowed their people to believe that a “sales culture” is, in and of itself, a bad thing. That thinking is not only wrong, but dangerous. Companies without growth cultures — in other words, sales cultures — are not long for this world.

I’m fond of pointing out to bank managers that their favorite groups and businesses from charities to churches to restaurants to sports teams have “sales cultures.” Bringing in new customers while also strengthening and expanding existing relationships provides oxygen to an organization. Sales equal oxygen.

The fact that some have decided that the word “selling” is now toxic has not changed the fact that the need for sales continues unabated.

On an employee level, I frequently remind new bankers that there are few traits that will drive their career advancement more than the ability to grow whatever segment of a business they are entrusted with. New bankers are typically responsible only for their personal production. Those who prove to be able in that role are often given the opportunity to manage others and help them grow the business. The better an employee becomes at helping teams develop and utilize the skills necessary to grow a business, the bigger the jobs and the greater the opportunities that come their way. Be exceptional at your job while growing your customer base, and the sky is the limit. Conversely, look to cut corners or behave unethically, and you will end up unemployed and unemployable. These really are not difficult concepts to grasp.

Banking is a highly competitive business, and ambitious people want to compete. To attract and retain talented and productive people, avoid ambiguity. Make your growth goals clear, your ethical standards clearer and reward people who achieve both. Employees and customers will both benefit.

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