Salespeople in spotlight after complaints

Bank employees say pressure to meet targets leads to unethical, illegal behaviour
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/08/2017

Their complaints filled the airwaves, so to speak. Anonymous salespeople at Canada’s banks suggested they were being pressured to make sales by not acting in their customers’ best interests, behaving unethically, and sometimes breaking the law.

TD Bank was the first to face the wrath, with CBC reporting employees were being pressured to meet high sales revenue goals. Soon, other major banks were targeted.

But the media coverage was not an accurate portrayal of its culture, or a reflection of the experience of most of the employees, according to TD Bank.

“TD is in the trust business. We know we must earn our customers’ trust before we earn their business,” said Bharat Masrani, CEO.

What’s behind the complaints?

True or not, the accusations put the spotlight on sales tactics and salespeople, with some experts questioning the training or corporate culture involved — and others suggesting it’s just a matter of people not understanding how sales work.

“The role of sales is to deliver numbers and to deliver revenue, so the pressure has been there and always has been there — that is the role of a salesperson. If there’s no sales, there’s no revenue, and there’s no business,” said Peter Irwin, president and CEO of the Canadian Professional Sales Association in Toronto.

These recent complaints may be because people don’t like their targets, he said.

“It’s a natural human behaviour to seek an easier route, and targets are targets. And if you don’t make the targets, then you’re not doing the job, so in the absence of knowing what the job descriptions are, what the performance standards are, it’s very, very difficult to make any type of appreciative comment about the situation,” said Irwin.

“For all I know, it’s a bunch of disgruntled employees who aren’t happy about having to sell. Maybe they’re in a sales role and they don’t want to be.”

Jobs overall have become more complex, said Christian Cook, assistant professor at the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“The pace of change that employees are facing is really significant, and I think that both at work and then certainly outside of work, lives are a little more demanding overall, so I think that some of it more stems (from) the pace of change.”

There’s also a need for more sales education across Canada, said Scott Stirett, executive director and founder of Venture for Canada, which recruits, trains and supports graduates to work at start-ups.

“With most business programs, you are not required to take a sales course which I think is unfortunate, especially considering how many people go into sales and, really, how sales is essential to almost any career,” he said.

Part of the challenge is knowing what to teach, said Stirett. Should it involve different sales methodologies, public speaking or learning how to use software such as Salesforce, for example?

“There’s a lack of understanding… and lack of agreement sometimes on how to teach sales, so sometimes there’s that paralysis,” he said.

“There’s also the thought ‘Oh, sales courses are pseudo-academic,’” he said, so they are not respected as much.

But more and more people, as they get into the sales profession, realize that training and continual development is fundamental to their success and growth, said Irwin.

“There was a time when people used to say, ‘That person is a born salesman, he’s got that personality.’ Well, it goes well beyond that. There are a whole series of skills that are required — ethics and different pieces of knowledge that all combine to truly make an effective salesperson.”

Focus on ethics

The decisions salespeople make should not be for their own benefit, if they are truly following an ethical and consultative sales process, said Irwin.

“All of our programs, our code of ethics that underpins our certified sales designations, all of that is based on honesty and integrity and accurately presenting products and services, respecting confidential information, continuous improvement in making sure individuals are familiar with products,” he said.

Good-quality salespeople have a very ethical approach to sales, said Irwin.

“The whole key to ethical selling is to adopt a genuinely consultative process and approach to selling. And, in some cases, the needs aren’t being fulfilled, and then perhaps it’s a sale that needn’t be made — that becomes the fundamental decision a salesperson has to make, and that really is a function in terms of how well an organization is doing in terms of training its people.”

TD’s training programs aim to deliver high-quality content and learning experiences, with a focus on customer service, in a simple, effective way, said Daria Hill in corporate and public affairs at TD Bank Group in Toronto.

“TD conducts internal and external training for employees, ranging from compliance and mandatory training to specialized training for various capabilities like customer advice, leadership, product and technical skills and communication skills.”

Recently, the bank has leveraged more digital and social learning frameworks and technologies “to deliver engaging, relevant and ongoing training in addition to the face-to-face and in-the-moment training,” she said.

“For new employees, for example, our training and onboarding programs are used every week across our business.”

The training also includes an annual review and attestation of TD’s code of conduct and ethics by every employee, from those who serve customers to senior management, said Hill.

“This code of conduct requires our employees to act ethically, with integrity, honesty, fairness and professionalism, and to not allow a focus on business results to come before our focus on our customers. We take our commitment to ethics and integrity very seriously.”

Ethics and trust are the cornerstones of the banking business, so any decision an employee makes needs to be living those values, said Cook.

“I’m a firm believer that if we focus on the right behaviour, the results will come and so I think that there’s opportunities — when you’re setting goals with employees, when you’re designing what you hope to achieve from a sales perspective — that embedded in that are the right behaviours and not just a hyper-focus on the results.”

That needs to go hand-in-hand with a system that’s also checking for understanding, she said.

“(That means) frequent check-ins that test for understanding around codes of ethics or codes of conduct; making certain that the message has been received and… that means we’re communicating it in a lot of different ways, so maybe we have an online quiz for employees that has them check in and re-sign every year their willingness to comply with the code of ethics, and ways that test they understand what that means.”

It’s also about using videos and social media, and talking about it often enough so the message is received in the way it was intended, said Cook.

“You want to make sure employees can take that and apply it to a whole bunch of situations because in the complexity of today’s jobs, it’s probably not possible to provide a scenario and then a response to every possible ethical dilemma somebody might face. You can assure that they have knowledge and it’s deep enough that they can apply it to new situations,” she said.

“I think that there’s enough training, I think we need to be pretty vigilant in ensuring it’s the right training because just more of something that hasn’t really worked isn’t going to help.”

Beyond the training

And it’s not sufficient to focus solely on training; it’s about the whole system, such as pay for performance, decisions around promotions or leadership behaviours, said Cook.

“It has to be really integrated into everything that you do, as opposed to ‘Well, every quarter, here’s two hours of training.’ It needs to be front and centre of all of those other aspects of the system,” she said.

“There’s that formal training and then there’s all the informal things that are going on, all the rewards and rituals and recognition that are sending signals to employees all the time… There’s some tiny things we can do around rewarding the right behaviours which, if it’s all organized correctly, get us to the right results.”

It all starts with leadership, said Irwin, citing the situation with Wells Fargo in the United States where thousands of employees allegedly created millions of fake bank accounts.

“It’s not some rogue front-line sales rep who decides to do it, it was widespread among a huge group of people and either senior management was not paying attention or asking the right questions,” he said.

“Somewhere along the line, senior management has to be asking the question of themselves: ‘Why is this happening?’... And if they don’t understand it, then they’re not functioning as good managers.”

The lines of communication have to be open, and a big source of that is through the HR department, said Irwin.

“Our HR department plays a vital role in terms of being tapped into what’s going on with employees, and at every management meeting, there’s always a pulse check in terms of what’s happening on the front lines, how is management being perceived, are there issues with employees, are there issues emerging, should we be aware of them? And if there are, then we task people with delving into it and reporting back. You can’t fly blindly ahead and not provide that two-way communication with the front line.”

At TD, employees are encouraged to come forward if they have an issue, said Hill.

“Our leaders are face-to-face with employees on a regular basis to address any issues and reinforce our commitments.”

And if employees don’t feel comfortable escalating their concerns or questions to their leaders, TD offers other channels, including human resources, a confidential and anonymous employee ombuds group, and a confidential and anonymous whistleblower hotline and website, hosted by an independent third party, she said.

“Social media is another channel at TD where we welcome speaking with our employees if they choose, and getting feedback from them directly. We act on concerns raised through any of these channels.”

Employees in general may choose to go public on social media because they feel as though their voice hasn’t been heard in some other way, said Cook.

“So (it’s about) setting up systems through approachable managers and other feedback systems, employee suggestion programs, whistleblower programs, to have this level of emphasis on trust and ethics. You also have to be open to feedback from your stakeholders — if they’ve seen something, you need to give them a way to provide that feedback to you.”

And employees need to know what happens with their complaints, because problems can arise when there isn’t necessarily a loop closure, she said.

“The dream scenario is you have something set up where employees feel comfortable coming forward if they’ve seen something or they’ve felt pressure to do something or if they’ve overheard something, where they can come forward and have an honest conversation about that.”

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