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   ARTICLE   |   From Scotsman Guide Residential Edition   |   October 2005

5 Ways to Win

For excellent customer service and profitability, how you treat employees matters

Every aspect of the lending business is ultracompetitive. From products to profits, and prospects to processing, there is virtually no aspect of a broker’s business that another broker isn’t trying to copy.

Brokers and lenders alike see intense competition for great people. Hiring, retaining, rewarding and motivating their teams are constant challenges. There are strategies that provide a competitive edge in retaining people and are not easy for competitors to replicate. It may not be what you expect (better prospecting, better marketing or new commission plans). The core competitive advantage relies on how you treat your associates.

Successful companies compete for associates before competing for loans. In competing for your people’s hearts and minds, you set up a chain of positive interactions that results in performance, retention and profit. This isn’t just “feel good” stuff — your associates are the engine that makes your company grow. They’re people before they’re workers.

So how can brokers, many of whom are entrepreneurs, develop and keep a successful employee team that boosts the bottom line? Here are five key strategies that will support profitability. In many cases, these strategies can be used without adding to overhead.

1. Create authentic values

This sounds simple, and basically, it is. But it has to be authentic — meaning, it’s really what you believe, and you really practice it. In my experience, the difference between a rapidly growing company and a floundering company is that the growing company works on its values with the same energy it uses to generate loans.

To develop your genuine values, get your leaders in a room and talk about what you believe in. How do you really want to operate your business? Write down your values. Involve your leadership team in reacting to what you’ve written. Test them with your associates.

Go ahead and check out Web sites of lenders or even competitors you admire. Many times, companies publish their values. Don’t just copy someone else’s values, however; create your own. But this exercise can be helpful in generating ideas.

After a few rounds of input, refine the values and publish them. Put them everywhere. Talk about them. Point them out. Tell them to customers. Put them in your company literature.

And never forget them. Remember, values, like ethics, are free until you’re caught without them.

2. Use values to manage your business

I advise business leaders to spend significant time talking about and planning how their values play into their business systems. Consider the following examples:

  • A value stating you share in your success with employees might lead to a profit-sharing plan. On a less-grand scale, it could lead to a valued (and systematic) end-of-the-year bonus program. 
  • A value stating you care about the community you serve could lead to paid time off to allow employees to volunteer in your area, or to a pool of matching funds to assist employees in charitable giving.
  • A value stating you conduct business ethically may lead to regular training on lending ethics or to designating an “ethics officer” who confidentially mentors employees who face ethics issues in the course of their job.

The point is, your values leap off the paper you wrote them on and become integral to how you operate. When you perform these activities, constantly remind your team that your values guide you in making business decisions.

If you already have a set of company values, ask yourself: Are the values carried out and integrated through your entire business?

Revisit each of your values. List all the ways they are present in your business. Do your values describe the behaviors you expect? Do those behaviors occur? If you can’t see evidence of a certain value, what steps should you take to make it come alive?

3. Recognize associates in a creative way

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not. It takes some planning and creativity to keep things lively. Many businesses host a company picnic and think they’re done.

Regular and ongoing recognition ties back to how you reward and celebrate your team’s contributions to your company’s success. Create fun events as ways for employees to get to know each other. This helps build relationships and trust, which pays dividends because teamwork is vital to serving your customers. Regular cookouts in the parking lot, smoothies or ice cream on summer afternoons, dunking contests and basketball tournaments allow employees to relax and let off steam.

Celebrate holidays, birthdays, winning at business goals — all sorts of things. Flowers, signs, balloons, personal thank-you notes from executives and food are all ways to liven up your workplace. Try it once, and keep finding reasons to say thank you. Your customers will then thank you after they get great service from an associate who feels valued and valuable.

Amazingly, the smallest personal touch often goes the furthest in helping associates feel included. Remembering a birthday, asking about a sick child or parent, or congratulating people on personal achievements says volumes about how you value them as people and not just as “producers.”

Any broker can develop activities on a small and inexpensive scale. The point is not to spend a lot of money, but to spend energy on your teammates’ contributions.

4. Communicate to include associates

Communication is the glue that holds the world together. This is especially true in the workplace. Associates who understand the business they work in, and more specifically, their contribution to it, perform better. And they feel recognized; when people receive communication, they feel valued.

One of the greatest competitive advantages of a small company is the fact that it’s small. You can do all the good things that larger companies have a really hard time doing. You can talk directly to your team on a daily basis and tell them what’s going on. You can tell them your dreams, your goals, your challenges and your values.

In small businesses, the best way to do this is in face-to-face meetings. Regular companywide meetings in which the owner or CEO and top leaders review business plans, performance, goals, the market and other data are great ways to engage people in your challenges. Good or bad, they’ll know what you know. It takes courage, but question-and-answer sessions where your employees ask “tough” questions and get candid answers will go miles in involving them in meeting business challenges.

Most executives think they already communicate plenty. And most times, they’re wrong. To test yourself, ask a few of your front-line associates a simple question: “What are the three main goals of this company this year?” If you’re surprised by the variety of answers you get, more communication might be in order.

5. Equip associates to focus on customers

In every business situation I’ve encountered, I have found that well-trained associates with the right tools and the right direction get the job done every time. On the flip side, I’ve seen many poorly run ventures in which associates are clearly ill-equipped to serve their customers. I hear from loan officers who were hired with virtually no orientation, training or support.

In our business, with its pressures, complexities and technical aspects, ongoing training is a requirement, not a luxury. Train your associates on your processes, your products, your values, your business goals and rewards. I don’t mean that “departing associates” should orient their replacements — that is not enough. All associates should be trained to perform each aspect of their jobs — your way. Refresh them regularly because things are always changing.

One aspect of training that works well is underwriter training. You don’t need to turn your loan officers into underwriters, but any loan officer who knows the basics of what underwriters need to approve a loan and how they look at a package is a loan officer who is more likely to close more deals.

Think of the last few teammates you hired. How were they trained? Ask them if they truly felt ready to perform the job required of them when they stepped into their role.

•  •  •

These are five strategies for developing your team that will help you win. And I guarantee, unlike “products” that competitors already have, these techniques will be unique to you. They’ll help you recruit and retain your team and build a work environment that produces great customer service.

After all, your associates will naturally replicate and extend the treatment they receive in their work environment out to the customer. These strategies are not easily copied, and they’ll provide that competitive edge to help you close more loans — and isn’t that the real scorecard?


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