When Sales Culture Initiatives Fail

By Rebecca Oeltjenbruns

Over decades of designing and deploying management systems and sales culture initiatives, one of the questions I’ve often heard is, “If this doesn’t work, why not?”

The problems and pitfalls of sales culture initiatives are no mystery to those of us in the field. But to avoid them, it’s the bank leaders who need to understand what they are.

Here are six reasons why financial institutions fail to execute their sales culture initiatives.

1.  The senior leader sees training as an item on his or her checklist.

In today’s competitive environment, developing deep relationships is critical in differentiating your services from others. Your goal: to have clients see their banker as a trusted advisor, rather than an order taker or a product pusher. To achieve this goal, the CEO must be fully engaged in the sales culture initiative. Senior leaders often try to simplify the issue, thinking that training is all that’s needed. And, because training is often treated as just an item on a checklist, it’s no wonder that we often have to push and prod our CEOs to “enter the classroom” and participate fully in the learning.

In addition, when we see sales culture initiatives fail, it’s often because the senior leader does not communicate effectively before, during and after training. The CEO must be clear about expectations, reinforce the training with activities that drive continued performance improvement, and coach in ways that hold direct reports accountable for the behaviors that are taught as part of the sales culture initiative.


2.  The financial institution treats training as an event rather than a journey.

 I’m often asked to provide “training” for financial institutions as they try to achieve the goal of relationship management. This is significantly different from being asked to be a partner in the process of developing a sales culture. Organizations that try to train their way to success are typically disappointed in the results. This attitude usually reflects a desire to outsource the sales culture problem to a training resource. We’re good, but we’re not that good. Behavioral change takes time and the journey requires an engaging classroom experience that is reinforced on the job by managers willing to hold their team members accountable.

One more note: I’m a firm believer that the owner of any sales culture initiative must be a senior leader from the “front line”—whether retail or commercial. When the human resources director owns the initiative, the initiative nearly always becomes the “flavor of the day” and is doomed to fail.

3.  One-on-one coaching of sales managers is overlooked and undervalued.

Financial institutions that fail to get their sales culture initiatives to stick have not placed enough emphasis on or provided enough support for the critical position of front-line sales manager. This role has the most impact, not only on the financial results, but on the customer/member experience too. Once training initiatives are underway, it is the sales manager who will make, or break, the success of the program.

Because there is a direct link between personal motivation and discretionary effort, one-on-one coaching of sales managers is key to helping them reach the zone of peak performance. Classroom training alone can’t address discretionary effort and the inhibitors that might apply. When one-on-one coaching occurs—whether by a consultant or by senior leaders at the financial institution—actions can be taken to diagnose the reasons for resistance to change and to overcome these reasons with specific plans that align the sales manager’s personal mission with the organization’s sales culture objectives.


4.  Job descriptions (and incentive programs) are knowledge and skill based, not activity based.

When financial institutions fail to execute their sales culture initiatives, it is often because they have not developed job descriptions that outline the behaviors necessary for front-line sales people to execute, and execute well. In addition, financial institutions tend to develop incentive and reward programs based on the results they want, rather than on the behaviors required to get the results. These are the financial institutions that struggle to succeed with their sales culture initiatives. I recommend a behavioral job description for relationship managers that allows for objective assessment as illustrated below.


5.  Financial institutions focus on product and price rather than on people.

There are a number of ways financial institutions can win in the marketplace. When we see them fail with their sales culture initiatives, it is typically because the organization has chosen an approach for winning that means developing more and better products (or technology/delivery methods)—or it has decided on pricing strategies that are more aggressive. Other times it is because the financial institution has decided to expend time, energy and resources on its brand, making it more recognizable, more unique than its competitors.

It’s easier to fix product and price problems than it is to fix people problems. But no other approach moves organizations forward faster with their sales culture initiatives than one that focuses on unleashing employee potential.

6.  Silos within financial institutions get in the way of true value being delivered to the client.

When sales culture initiatives are undertaken, these initiatives often begin in retail branch operations. While this may be the most frequent and visible delivery channel, the retail branch is only one piece of the puzzle. For real value to be delivered to the client, all business units within the financial institution must collaborate. With so little differentiation among community banks and credit unions, relationship management requires organizations to develop a collaborative expert team that:

  • Delivers exceptional service in the retail branch as needed
  • Recommends appropriate financing solutions during the relationship cycle
  • Gives necessary advice and counsel as wealth is accumulated
  • Provides business solutions where appropriate

Developing this type of collaborative expert team is no small task. As illustrated in reason #3, peak performance requires the alignment of three things:

  • Personal Mission
  • Job Requirements
  • Organizational Structure

Behavioral job descriptions can be customized to include specific activities for collaborating with internal partners. Organization charts can be designed to create teams of partners who are coached and developed to add value to the organization’s clients. Fierce loyalty to this collaborative expert team may be the last and most critical step to achieve success with the financial institution’s sales culture initiative.

Rebecca Oeltjenbruns is a performance partner for the Center for Practical Management, a consulting firm dedicated to creating an engaging work environment that maximizes employee potential. There she works with financial institutions to design their unique set of management activities, tools, metrics, and tracking procedures. She facilitates the skill development workshops and reinforcement activities, personally conducting one-on-one coaching with executives and senior managers. She is also a faculty member of the ABA Bank Marketing School. Email: [email protected]