Need to Improve Sales Accountability? Ask the Redwoods

Earlier this year I took my family with me on a two-week business trip to southern Oregon and northern California. We have always wanted to visit this part of the country and jumped at the opportunity.

As part of the trip, we went up the Oregon coast. Fortunately, that led us right through the California redwoods and some of the tallest trees on earth. One of the trees we saw was nearly 15 feet in diameter and likely over 300 feet tall. The largest tree in the world is a redwood named Hyperion that is 380 feet tall. To put that in perspective, it is 75 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

These incredibly tall trees have a problem, how do they get water and nutrients from the roots all the way to the top of the tree?

Like all plants, redwood trees source their water from roots in the ground. But they don’t suck, or siphon, the water up. Instead, they take advantage of science.

The shape of water molecules enables them to climb upward. To facilitate this ability of water the climb, the tree grows tiny tubes called xylem. The xylem tubes perform capillary action to create the perfect condition where water can naturally climb as far as 300 feet, allowing a tree as large as a redwood to distribute water and nutrients from the roots to just about everywhere it needs.

It just so happens that a redwood tree is the perfect analogy for accountability at your credit union.

Credit unions have the same problem as redwoods. Just as redwood trees need water and nutrients to grow and thrive, your credit union, regardless of its size, needs revenue to thrive. Revenue is created when a credit union sells. While the vitality of a redwood tree depends on the quality of its roots, your credit union depends on the effectiveness of its sales performance, and the front-line salespeople. But even with strong sales roots, the credit union needs an effective accountability channel or “xylem.”

A culture of sales accountability can take one of three forms.

a)    Punitive - Siphon Accountability

b)    Non-existent – Chaos

c)    Natural – Capillary Action

In many credit unions you find the first two forms of sales accountability. The credit union may determine it needs to improve sales results and so it will try to siphon more performance out of their team. Leaders create expectations and then seek to force, or suck, accountability out of their teams. They use punitive penalties and extrinsic motivators, like incentives or bonuses, to get their team to comply and produce.

Leaders who try to siphon performance results quickly find that the response from their team is not positive and the impact on company culture is toxic. They soon abandon the approach or simply don’t enforce it. This leads to a non-existent accountability culture where individuals and sales teams determine what they will and will not do. Leaders feel powerless and sales potential is squandered, leaving growth up to chance. Chaos ensues, placing the sales culture largely out of the credit union’s control.

Credit unions with successful sales cultures on the other hand, use what we at SalesCU call, “Natural, Upward-flowing Accountability.” This form of accountability looks and operates a lot like xylem, or the capillary action in trees.

A credit union with a successful sales culture creates an environment that allows accountability to flow upward within the organization. It accomplishes this environment by facilitating four critical elements.

1.    Clear Sales Expectations

2.    Effective Sales Training

3.    Developmental Coaching

4.    Meaningful Accountability

Clear Expectations

Clear expectations are established at the very beginning of the hiring process. The credit union outlines the job requirements of the role in the job description. For sales roles, sales expectations are clearly stated, and requirements are outlined so applicants understand the job for which they are applying. These expectations are carried through to the job interview.

For existing employees, credit union leaders set forth clear, qualitative expectations that focus on behaviors and actions rather than numbers and quotas. These qualitative expectations focus on the elements of the job that create desired sales and service outcomes.

For example, a low performing credit union may set an expectation that each platform salesperson, must sell ten new checking accounts, bring in $100,000 in new deposits, and fund $200,000 in new loans each month, including selling four ancillary products and services on all new accounts. A team member’s sales performance would be measured by reaching these goals, regardless of whether there was enough opportunity to produce these results or much missed opportunity that could have identified and captured.

A higher performing credit union sets qualitative expectations that focus on the quality and consistency of sales activities that generate new checking accounts, deposit growth, loan creation, and ancillary product sales. Instead of capping performance with numbers, team members are encouraged to succeed in every opportunity to educate and help a member see the value of doing business with the credit union. With qualitative expectations in place, sales performance is measured by the consistency of applying sales processes and the outcomes they produce.

Effective Sales Training

New employees have these expectations reinforced throughout the new hire orientation process and initial job training. Competent, credit union-specific sales training is provided and perfectly blended with operations and regulation training.

When employees report to their manager to finish their training, sales is reinforced as an important function of their role. New sales team members are partnered with accomplished sales performers on the team that provide additional tips and techniques, and model effective sales behaviors and skills.

Existing team members are consistently fortified with sales training that is timely and applicable to their role. The training focuses on the sales mindset, processes, and skills needed to meet and exceed expectations.

Developmental Coaching

Coaching with consistency is a must for natural, upward-flowing accountability to function.

For newer sales team members, coaching is a blend of leadership involvement and peer shadowing and modeling. This shows new salespeople how to apply the training and what it means to meet the expectations of their position.

For existing team members, sales leaders apply a coaching process that includes observing a team member’s work with members, making plans that address the developmental needs of the employee, conducting one-on-one meetings to give support and training as well as practice to refine and perfect processes and skills. Coaching provides to opportunity for the team member to set new performance goals that stretch themselves to reach new levels of performance and capture existing sales opportunity.

Meaningful Accountability

Each of the three elements above are essential in providing sales team members appropriate sales expectations to which they can hold themselves accountable. When they are in place, team members can be asked to report back on how they are applying the training and coaching, and thereby meeting the expectations of their role. Because team members know the expectations, they can prepare to report what they have achieved and where they are still falling short.

Like the redwood trees, a leader only needs to create an environment where their salespeople feel safe and supported in reporting their performance and results.

For example, leaders will:

·         Schedule a monthly accountability with each team member instead of informing team members by email where they fell short.

·         Ask each team member to come to the meeting prepared with numbers and examples to show how they are working to meet/exceed expectations, instead of preparing those numbers and examples themselves.

·         Ask questions to understand what factors contributed to the team member’s performance instead of telling team members what they are doing wrong or right.

·         Review current qualitative goals and stretch team members with new performance challenges instead of telling them to do better and work harder.

·         Praise the team members and provide meaningful feedback instead of reminding them of possible punitive penalties or external motivators.

For performance and accountability to move up naturally through the organization, these same principles and elements must be applied and expected at all levels of the sales team. This means that sales leaders must hold themselves accountable for their team’s success by reporting their coaching and other developmental activities to their regional manager or functional vice president. The functional leader must report to their leaders showing how their coaches are being developed as leaders, and how they are acting on opportunities to improve in their role and build their confidence in leading their team to consistent and predictable results. This process continues through each level of the organization until the CEO is holding herself accountable and reporting back to the bord of directors on how the credit union is working to meet the needs of the membership.

So, is pulling, or siphoning, accountability all that bad?

Aside from the negative environment and culture that siphoning accountability creates, siphoning as a method of creating sustainable accountability and sales results is limited. Even if a tree had the ability to siphon water upward, it would be capped at about 20 to 30 feet. By creating a natural environment that allows for capillary action, a tree can grow ten times taller or more. The same principle applies to sales accountability at your credit union.

When a credit union can create a culture of meaningful, upward flowing accountability, it spreads aaccountability out to all team members in the credit union, requires them to be responsible for the outcome of their efforts, and empowers them to be stewards of the expectations. Just as redwood trees grow and thrive through the natural flow of water and nutrients though capillary systems, this form of accountability will empower the credit union to reach incredible new heights in its growth and profitability by unlocking the potential of its sales systems and salespeople.

About Author:

SalesCU is a credit union-specific sales training company dedicated to bringing a proactive sales approach to every credit union. SalesCU accomplishes this by providing sales consulting and training to enhance branch sales, contact center sales, outbound sales, and lending center sales. The goal of SalesCU is to empower credit unions to cultivate primary financial relationships with their members. Engage Nick Brown directly at 801-860-5807 and . Ask about his credit union specific workshops and online sales training, featured at

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