Extreme Coaching

Interview by Walt Albro

Occurs when the sales manager asks her team to role play a situation again and again…and again

In October 2014, Lori Norton of Regions Bank (assets: $119 billion), Birmingham, Ala., received the institution’s monthly Better Life Award, which is given to an associate for outstanding dedication and job performance as well as exemplary community involvement and commitment. Regions has locations in 16 states across the South, Midwest and Texas.

Norton is a consumer sales manager in Texarkana, Texas., and oversees 14 branches in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Her job is called “district manager” in some banks. Norton started as a teller 21 years ago and has worked in just about every part of the institution—including investments, mortgages and as a branch manager.

One of her colleagues refers to her as an example of an “extreme” coach.

ABA Bank Marketing and Sales magazine recently spoke to Norton about her use of coaching, particularly in connection with sales activities.

Our questions and her answers follow below.

I understand that Regions Bank has a cultural attitude about sales and coaching. Can you explain this?

In today’s business climate, where many people conduct transactions online, there are fewer customers coming into the branch than there were in the past. Most of the associates in the branch today are either directly or indirectly involved in the sales process. If an associate is not going out and making presentations to prospects, he or she is at least involved in obtaining referrals. Even tellers—particularly those desiring to grow their careers–occasionally go out and make presentations to prospects.

Our culture emphasizes the use of coaching not only for sales but for all types of banking activities, including understanding the customer’s needs.

What does a typical meeting with a prospect or customer look like?

It starts with a pre-call meeting. The bankers discuss the objective, what it is that they want to accomplish. They decide what other line-of-business partners that they want to include in the meeting. The meeting itself is a look at the prospect’s complete financial picture. What does the prospect need? Investment services? Insurance? Afterwards, the team discusses what was learned. What did the prospect say or not say? What are the prospect’s financial needs?

How important is coaching to this process?

It is one of the most important things that you can do for your team. There are a lot of things involved in identifying and meeting the customer’s needs, and not everything can be taught in a classroom setting. Coaching needs to be done one-on-one and constantly and consistently—and not just when there is a perceived problem.

What is your philosophy of sales coaching?

I believe that almost everyone wants to do well. If someone is struggling, then you have to find out why so you can fix it. For each person, that answer might be different. It could be related to capacity, comfort, motivation, etc. You have to coach to individuals and meet them where they are. Too often people coach to groups, and the problem with that is not everyone in the group is dealing with the same issue. It’s about the individual. Most coaches also give up too early.

So coaches need to be persistent, even when progress is slow?

One of my early mistakes as a manager was to lose patience when the process was not moving fast enough. What I have learned is that all people progress at different speeds. Maybe some people are not learning as fast because they are distracted by issues outside of work. But, when you run into this, you can’t simply shift people around. For one thing, it takes a long time to find good people and even longer to get them fully trained. And for the customer, we want them to have confidence that they will be dealing with the same person, day in and day out.

What approaches and techniques do you use to coach your sales team?

Role play and show coach are my favorites. My team knows that we will practice it until they get it. I like for them to throw their biggest objections or show me their most “difficult” customer, and then I model how to overcome it.

In 21 years of banking I have heard just about every objection there is—and I have had to figure out how to overcome them. I would put myself in the customer’s situation and think “If this was me, what would help me understand this, or what would be important to me?” After I model it, I have them do it again, again, and again until they have it.

It’s funny because a lot of them will call me now and say, “Hey, can you help me with this customer before they get here?” I’ll throw an objection at them and say, “How will you overcome this?” We anticipate the objection. I try to teach them that if you anticipate it, if you expect that its coming and have a plan to overcome it, you don’t have to worry about it. There’s comfort in having a plan.

Are there any other coaching techniques that you use?

For a lot of our associates, attending a couple of classroom training sessions isn’t enough to master a skill. It takes more than eight hours to learn a skill. If I have newer associates who have not had the experience or been trained on our process, I’ll have them schedule a call and then I’ll do it for them. I’ll let them see me make the presentation so they see the process at work.

They can see me do it, and then the next appointment I’ll have them do it. I think this method does two things: 1. It shows them it can be done. They know that I believe in what I am teaching. 2. It reinforces and establishes that I want them to be successful, and they are not in this alone.

Early on in my career I had plenty of people who could “tell” me what to do. In a classroom they could “teach” the process, I had very few that could show me—not many would sit elbow-to-elbow with me and a client.

One of your team members describes you as an “extreme coach.” What does he mean?

I’ll say “Do it again,” “Great, now do it again,” “OK and again,” “One last time.” Confidence and comfort come with experience and practice. It’s a safe environment with me, and they want to look good in front of the customer/client.

If they struggle in a “safe environment,” it’s even harder when they go live. So we do it again, and again and again. We make it as real world as possible.

This approach only works because the team trusts me. They know I have their best interest at heart, and I want them to do well. I am very fortunate that people have seen the success, and they know I care. I give them honest feedback.

Why go to extreme?  

For two reasons. No. 1: the customer. We are living in some very uncertain times financially. Most people have real financial issues that are keeping them up at night. Nine times out of 10, there is an answer or solution to the problem. However, because of previous bad experiences, or just simply not knowing there is a solution, they will never seek out the help. If there were nothing that could be done, that’s one thing, but to know there’s an answer to the problem, and nothing is being done, we have to help educate our customer.

No. 2: Someone did it for me. Someone invested in me. I care about my team. I want them to be able to provide for their families. I want them to have peace at night knowing they did a good job. I want them to know they helped someone today. Our customers and our employees deserve to have someone who’s willing to be extreme for them.

Why are some managers uncomfortable with coaching?

Perhaps because they see coaching as a negative—something that happens only when the salesperson makes a mistake. Perhaps they are reluctant to speak frankly for fear that the salesperson will take it the wrong way.

Coaching is not a negative. And, it is not something that is done only when an error is made. At Regions Bank, our culture says that we coach all the time, even when things are going well.

What type of success has your team achieved?

As I became more passionate about coaching and helping people develop, I could see the results: production improved, turnover decreased, and our scores on performance and service quality improved. Consistent improvement doesn’t happen by accident, and I’m incredibly proud of our team and our bankers for the work they’ve put in to improve and serve our customers.

Walt Albro is the editor of ABA Bank Marketing and Sales magazine, Washington, D.C. Email: [email protected].