Accountability: Building a Sales and Service Culture One Employee at a Time

The pursuit of high-performing sales associates and outstanding member service representatives continues to intensify, as consumer demand remains low and competition high. For many credit unions, a low-rate, a cash reward, or the ever-present “steal-a-loan” program are the strategies of the day; however, these are reactive, short-term strategies that aren’t working out well for more than a few of us. An increasing number of credit unions are getting serious about creating a sustainable sales and service culture. By “getting serious,” I mean they are spending money on programs, setting up meetings, pushing for more training, fighting resistance, and – for those who have been at it awhile with weak results – addressing accountability.

It has been my experience that programs with strong, system-wide ownership and accountability are the most successful in the long term. Consider this example:

My bad…

In the early ‘90s, my career was on the move, and I found myself at a new credit union and in a new position as vice president of marketing. I was excited by this move; the credit union was growing and seemed committed to innovation and growth. I was committed to doing my very best. Besides being twice the size of my former office, my new office was located along the perimeter of the lobby, directly behind the MSRs. Expectations were that members waiting to see an MSR didn’t wait, with management coming out of their offices to provide backup if necessary. At the time, loan demand was high and local competition was fierce. Our team was slugging it out with the local banks and community credit unions for each and every loan. It was definitely a “if you snooze, you lose” environment.

One day during my first month at the credit union, I noticed the two MSRs in the lobby were in the middle of loan interviews when a third (potential) member entered the branch and sat down in the waiting area. One of the MSRs appeared to be wrapping up and would soon be available to help the third person, so I didn’t bother scurrying out to take care of him. It seemed like only a second before I saw the credit union’s CEO heading out of his office, which was directly across the lobby from me, to greet the waiting member. I was mortified. He greeted the member, sat down, and moved into a loan interview. I watched the entire scene unfold. Not only did he finish the interview, he pre-approved the loan request and cross-sold a credit union Visa card. The member left pleased with the service and had no idea that the person assisting was the CEO.

As soon as the member left, he walked towards me standing in my office. I remember feeling excruciatingly disappointed in myself for not being more responsive. His reaction was direct and professional: he clearly restated his expectation that the management team be the immediate backup for MSRs – no exceptions. In addition, he restated his expectations that when we interview for a loan, we always look for additional loan opportunities. He asked me to restate the expectation for clarity, and asked for my commitment to his vision. He finished by telling me that he believed in me and my ability to become a good sales leader. I felt badly for missing the opportunity, and I had so much respect for the way he handled the situation. It was clear, fair, and his actions spoke louder than any words could have. His leadership significantly impacted the rest of my career. The credit union experienced phenomenal growth, and my time and experiences with this CEO remain among the very best of my career.

The invaluable takeaway…

We can all learn some important lessons from my experience that day:

  • Quickly acknowledge problems and mistakes. In my case, recognition and accountability for poor performance was immediate.
  • Articulate the fix. Service and sales expectations were clear and not left for interpretation
  • Lead by example. The CEO showed me exactly what success looked like, as well as its high priority.
  • Encourage a team approach. The CEO made clear through his expectations that sales and service was everyone’s responsibility – including management’s.

This credit union had never paid for outside sales consulting. There wasn’t a 4-inch binder with a step-by-step selling plan. Yet, this credit union had as strong a sales and service culture as I have seen. The CEO had a clear sales and service vision. He lived it daily, and expected every other member of the team to as well. This vibrant culture continues today, and has resulted in a strong sales and management team with consistent excellent service, growth and profitability.

Building a successful sales and service culture requires more than words and detailed plans. A great culture is built upon actions that support words, coupled with leaders willing to roll up their sleeves, spend time observing, coaching and holding their team accountable.