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Do You Really Need A Sales Culture?

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

I delivered a presentation on Sense-and-Respond Marketing at Marquis Software’s User Conference last week (thanks to @mbartoo). A very well run event with a great group of very engaged attendees (as is usually the case with creditunionistas and community bankers).

In a session on CRM, someone (can’t remember if it was the speaker or an attendee) said:

“You need a sales culture for CRM to work.”

There was plenty of agreement with this statement, with little — no, make that NO — dispute from the group.

My take: The statement is backwards. It’s a lot more likely that you need CRM to create a sales culture — if you even need a sales culture at all.

Installing A Sales Culture?

A lot has been written about sales cultures — especially in the context of credit unions. There’s even a site called run by a consulting firm. No offense to the firm, but there are a few things on the site that really put me off. Example: Constant reference to “installing” a sales culture in a credit union. Ugh. You install a washing machine or a refrigerator — you don’t install a sales culture.

There’s another reference to a survey which found that 75% of fast-growing credit unions had “installed” a sales culture, leading the authors of the study to conclude that “”if you do not have a service selling culture — get one.” OK, boss, I’ll get right on it.

How Do You Develop A Sales Culture?

The problem with a lot of the discussion regarding a sales culture is that little of the discussion revolves around what it is, and too much of the discussion are assertions that it’s what credit unions need. How can you know you need it if you don’t what it is? How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

One of the best articles I’ve seen on what a sales culture is a now 9 year-old piece on titled Four Critical Steps in Building a Successful Sales Culture. The steps include: 1) Assessing and selecting any new staff in four critical sales culture dimensions prior to hiring; 2) Implementing an internal/external customer service program; 3) teaching the entire staff the proper way to sell and self-promote; and 4) Coaching everyone.

The CRM Chicken-And-Egg

The Four Critical Steps are spot on, but I have to ask: If you successfully did those four things, would business performance improve?

I can’t conclude that the answer is definitively yes. Without data about your customers’ or members’ preferences, needs, goals/objectives, etc. the Four Steps, in and of themselves, won’t guarantee success.

Without a process that tracks, monitors, measures, and enforces when sales discussions are conducted with customers/members, the Four Steps, in and of themselves, won’t guarantee success.

That’s what CRM does (or at least should do) — provide the data and process to help ensure that a sales culture is successful.

Do You Really Need A Sales Culture?

But there’s still a more fundamental question that needs to be addressed: Is a sales culture really a prerequisite to success? There are some who might argue that the answer is no.

Mark Arnold, in a blog post from 2011, interviewed sales training expert Tim Wackel, who had this to say:

“Quit trying to sell. The less you worry about the sell the more you’ll sell. Quit acting like a seller and act like a buyer—the world will pay more attention to you if you do. Don’t communicate ‘I’m here to sell you something.’ Instead listen with them, dialogue with them and help them.”

Sounds like the antithesis of a sales culture to me.

Or listen to this from Gene Blishen (@tinfoiling), commenting on the Filene Research Institute site:

“Larger credit unions have moved to a sales culture. The staff needs to make the sales benchmarks set by the management. The culture of service, though voiced admirably, is mostly just lip service. You can’t have both. So to maximize growth that conditions many aspects of the business the sales culture is the choice. I remember speaking with a retiring CEO and asked him if he could do anything over again what would it be. He said he would have never introduced a sales culture, it destroyed his CU. They are big now but at what price?”

Yes, at what price? And, for what benefit?

There will always be studies where someone identifies the “high performers” and finds that 75% of them say they have a sales culture. But what we should be asking is how did the other 25% achieve high-performing status without one? And could the 75% who achieved high-performing status without having put the time and effort into developing a sales culture?

What Many Credit Unions Need

It would be foolish to recommend that one size fits all, and that every credit union needs this or needs that. A sales culture may be exactly what some credit unions need. And what I’m going to propose might not be the right thing for all credit unions, either. But I do think it is appropriate for a lot of them.

What credit unions need is this: An advice/guidance culture.

An advice/guidance culture is one in which the organization is driven to provide the right advice, guidance, help, recommendations, instruction, persuasion, dissuasion, suggestion, prescription, counsel, and caution to its customers or members.

This change in focus (from sales to advice/guidance) does a few things:

1. Broadens the focus beyond human interactions. The problem with a sales culture is that is predominantly centered around human-to-human interactions. Which are in decline, as you well know, and are likely to continue to decline in number. But advice/guidance can be provided in any channel. And employees of your organization will have an easier time figuring out how to provide advice/guidance in online and mobile channels.

2. Takes the focus off individual employee skills or capabilities. I hate to have to admit this, but I’m a terrible salesperson. I don’t enjoy selling, and am very happy if I can get one of my colleagues to do the selling for me. On the other hand, I love talking about what I do, and how I can help my clients. Wait, isn’t that selling?

3. Better aligns with the organizational mission. Which of the following two statements is closest to your organization’s mission? Is it a) To sell  the most products to our customers or members. Or b) To best serve our customers’ or members’ financial services needs. You said b), didn’t you? OK, now which kind of culture is best aligned with that mission? A sales culture or an advice/guidance culture? That’s what I thought.

Bottom line: It’s time to retire the notion that credit unions (or any financial institution, for that matter) needs a sales culture to succeed.

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

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  1. thekengardner says:

    Spot on Ron. Reminds me of your post about ways to differentiate FIs. An advisory based approach was your first option, which I couldn’t agree with more.

  2. So, let me summarize…. retire the notional of a sale culture by
    1) developing products & services that consumers want / need, and products & services that are not a carbon-copy of that which is available from every other FI in town, county, state & the country
    2) providing anywhere, anytime, anywhere service,
    3) selling through value-added content, insights and information, and
    4) implementing technology to track sales related activity ie. CRM

    Are these recommendations consistent with “retirement of of a sales culture”?

    The bigger challenge — this prescription, while 100% accurate, is completely foreign for the vast majority of Community Banks and Credit Unions. Transitioning strategy and operating models is difficult and sometimes painful effort… but it is absolutely necessary should management teams wish to remain viable, and god forbid, successful…

  3. Jodi Torres says:

    Ron I really like this post. I think staff respond better to consulting and advising people, heck I do. I want to help, share what I know; not sell something people may not need. I want people to trust me and come back to me in the future so I can help them again. I can do that by building trust and doing the right thing. These are things my Dad taught me 40 years ago. He was a great salesman and I respected his profession.

    But this selling products and services to people that they may not need; well I don’t respond to that as a customer and don’t feel good about that as an employee. Advice and consultation, I am all over that! And it makes me feel good!

  4. Sales Culture = Lowest paid, least trained employees pushing the “product of the month”

  5. Hullo Ron. Saw this on the Watercooler and had to respond. I couldn’t agree more with you. I’ve worked credit unions that had a “sales culture” that is similar to what George defined and worked diligently to unwind it. Lowest paid, least trained workers (would you like fries with that) pushing products of the month. Yuk.

    Too many consultants make a living off “installing” sales cultures. And lazy managers will gladly pay for this ruse. Then when it doesn’t work they can blame the consultant AND the lowest paid worker! Win. Win.

    Oh, and let’s not forget one of the reasons we feel we HAVE to sell…we have so many products (a lot of them duds) and some genius said one of our goals this year is to increase services per hh from 2.05 to 2.55.

    I won’t be sold to – I will, gladly accept your advice/guidance. Nicely done.

  6. I agree that “sales culture” has been extremely poorly executed in the financial space. I feel that is because the industry is so product focused instead of process focused. Talk to any good B-to-B sales professional about how they “sell” and it will sound a lot like the “advice and guidance” nirvana we love to talk about in the credit union industry.

    Even more importantly, those same professionals use CRM in one form or fashion to manage a “process” to make sure the advice and guidance they are giving out lead to a sale at some point. And get this…the same CRM allows their managers see what activities they are spending the most time in and can provide assistance where needed. That is what CRM is all about!

    Unfortunately, most financial institutions’ employees use CRM for two purposes (if they use it at all)…what product should I push at this particular customer today…and what product has been pushed at them (and turned down) in the past.

  7. mdbartoo says:

    Ron –
    Great to have you at our conference, hope we get to do it again. We’ve had discussions in other forums regarding the term “sales” and I think a lot of people get caught up in identifying sales simply as product pushing. It’s not, nor should it be considered as such. In my opinion, an effective sales culture is going to be exactly what you referenced and people are chiming in upon…the ability to appropriately advise and guide. Doing this will naturally (where appropriate) lead to additional business from your customers/members. Whatever terminology you want to use, the power and effectiveness of any system, such as CRM, will be in enhancing your ability to do this.

    Denise – your comment about “increasing products/services from 2.05 to 2.55” concerns me because I think people see that and immediately jump to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be looking at metrics like that because it will cause us to push the “product of the month”. In my opinion, we SHOULD be looking at those types of metrics because many of our members have multiple financial relationships elsewhere. If we are happy with only 2.05 of those (because we’re concerned about a “sales culture”), have we provided them a true membership service by not approaching them with other products/services we offer that might be a benefit?

    Ultimately, I think we get too caught up in terminology. We need to be a resource for our customers/members and an advisory service for those products/services that are best for them today. When things in their life change, we need to be available to help then as well. I’d call that having a sales culture…other people might not, and that’s ok.

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