Comply2019, put on by the great people of Performline, is a compliance conference primarily focused on “FinTech”—Financial Technology. Another term used a lot these days is “RegTech”—technology designed for regulation and compliance purposes. A good percentage of the people in attendance are in charge of compliance for their organizations, and most are or were practicing attorneys.
Also present were vendors hoping to network and meet new compliance contacts interested in their solutions. I also met many private equity and investment people who were there to learn more about the compliance and regulatory space in search of new business ventures to invest in or to help with their current investments into fintech companies.
Then there was me: a sales guy.
Actually, several salespeople were there, but not many.
With sessions that included a panel of assistant attorneys general for the great states of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, a special presentation by the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Richard Cordray, and the current director of the Consumer Protection branch of the Federal Trade Commission, this conference might actually appear in some salespeople and sales organization owners’ nightmares.
These people are viewed as the “enemy” to sales.
But I disagree. Which is why I went to New York City for this conference centered on compliance.
I believe sales and selling, as a profession, can be completely done above-board in a compliant way. I think the only way to do it is through setting the right expectations, making promises to your customers, and then fulfilling that promise.
I am in complete alignment with the types of statements made by those AGs and federal regulators. They all want businesses to flourish and prosper. Their charters are all about commerce and capitalism. They support businesses’ success. As long as business practices are done correctly.
Here is where there is generally friction between sales-based organizations and the regulators and enforcers. Salespeople want to sell, and they don’t like being told what they cannot do or that what they are doing is wrong.
Yes, the traditional, stereotypical salesperson is focused on generating revenue at any cost. However, not everyone in sales feels this way, and the ones who get into trouble and end up as headlines are usually going about things the wrong way with their prospects and customers—which leads to their legal issues. Do enough things wrong and you end up on the government’s radar. If it’s a big enough issue, the feds will come knocking.
So, I was a sales guy in a room full of regulators, lawyers, and compliance officers, yet I was excited to be there. If you know me at all, you know I am all about doing the right thing by people. If you have a customer buy from you, then it should be for their reasons and not yours. If they buy, it should be with a clear understanding of what they are and are not getting. If they are unhappy with their purchase, the company should do its best to resolve the issue.
I fully believe a true sales professional can be very effective at getting the right people to buy from them. A place can exist in the middle of sales and compliance—a balance that is profitable to the company while still satisfying to the buyer.
So I hopped on a plane and flew from California to New York City for only the second time in my life. After two days of compliance-centered panels and discussions, I now want to share a few things.
Compliance Issues Are Mostly Caused By Salespeople
This statement might not sound like a big revelation. Anyone not a salesperson would naturally assume compliance problems resulted from things salespeople say or don’t say. While compliance issues do occur in the fulfillment and customer service side of the transaction, widespread compliance issues will generally be caused by the sales team. Sort of.
While we might want to point the finger at what the reps are saying, the issue and cause go deeper than that. What the salesperson does is just the surface symptom. The root cause, as stated so perfectly by Chris D’Angelo, the Chief Deputy Attorney General from New York, is that compliance issues come from salespeople having the wrong incentive plans in place. If a person has an incentive/compensation plan that rewards them for completing an action without regard for the quality of that action, then long-term failures will occur. This is true in any area of life or business.
Imagine an auto manufacturer that pays people working on the assembly line floor by the number of cars they build, or for completing their specific portion of the process, without being held to any quality control standards; can you imagine the types of cars that would be produced? While you might say people will want to do the right thing—and I would agree—most people when left up to their own choices without any consequence will default to getting rewarded in the easiest ways possible. It’s in our human, primal nature. It’s not right or wrong; it just is.
When a company sets up an incentive plan focused on closed sales and not the quality of those sales, it will lead to more compliance issues. The exception would be a company that has a corporate culture of quality and doing the right thing by people, which will attract employees who do not need to be told to be compliant; they will just want to be compliant.
But when that compensation plan leaves it up to people to decide, it will only take a few bad apples to ruin it for everyone. If you want to take a proactive approach to compliance, ensure that the compensation plan for everyone in your organization, not just salespeople, has an element of compliance and quality control.
Technology Will Not Save You
At the conference, there were many panel discussions around technology in the world of finance and compliance. Financial Services companies, which include anyone dealing with a consumer’s current finances or helping them get access to new financing or debt, are spending a lot of their focus on technology. It is a function of the era we live in. Companies like to label themselves as FinTech companies, but really, they are a Financial Services companies that use technology.
In one session, it was pointed out that Financial Services has always included technology and not just those Silicon Valley startups. The ATM is a FinTech product, but, of course, no one would call it one because it’s not a cool new app on your phone. But it’s still financial technology—you put in your debit card, poke a few keys, grab your card, grab some cash, and walk away. That was amazing, groundbreaking technology back when it first came out. Now we are used to it. Now we think FinTech has to be a shiny new app that allows you to get a mortgage while in your pajamas or access your bank account anywhere in the world.
The challenge is that a lot of Financial Services companies want to lean on the technology piece as a way to be compliant. But technology is not enough. The technology has to be compliant as well. Just because you use Artificial Intelligence in your financial data modeling doesn’t mean you are compliant. As one regulator pointed out, if you put only certain data into your model, your resulting AI output might not have created a bias, but the bias might have been there from the source data.
I mention this point because it is important for any company dealing with someone’s finances, whether new debt or helping with debt relief, not to assume technology alone will make them compliant. Compliance technology and systems will help, but they must be part of a larger compliance strategy that doesn’t just abdicate compliance to the Machines.
Compliance Can Be About Reacting Right
Problems will happen. Customers will complain. That is business. That is life. You can’t make all the people happy all of the time. That is just not possible. If you have a business that deals with customers, then you already know that humans are unpredictable. As I said, problems will happen. Someone will be unhappy with your product/service, your staff, or your company as a whole.
Several presenters, including regulators, mentioned that compliance is not about having zero unhappy customers; it’s about dealing with issues. Sometimes, no matter how proactive you want to be, you end up having to be reactive. A customer calls to complain, maybe cancel, and/or wants a refund. How you handle that request and interaction is very important. Do not ignore it. Handle it quickly and effectively. Of course, you want the customer to leave feeling good, but they still might be upset and complain. If those are the margins, then when an AG or regulator gets those rare complaints, they won’t do much about it.
But if trends start to appear or increased problems build up, it will be an issue. As a business owner, especially of a sales-based organization, do not just ignore problems or put your head in the sand. One key suggestion was that if a lot of people are confused about your contract, go over the top with making it clearer. Bold sections, or put them in outlined boxes to make them stand out. Do not be afraid to make things obvious. If you are selling in the right way to the right people, they won’t be scared off by whatever it is. They will appreciate the transparency and be satisfied customers.
This suggestion is important as a strategy because sometimes regulators build up complaints for a while before contacting the company. If they reach out to you regarding a common issue that you have already taken steps to resolve, and can show them your reactive/proactive solution, they should be a bit happier with you as a business. If you ignore complaints and don’t make any changes, then when they want to chat with you, it might be rough.
Your goal should be to put as many proactive systems as possible in place. Then, when issues pop up, you have to be reactive (that is the total nature of Customer Service—reacting to customer inquiries). Look for trends and then go back into proactive mode. Rinse and repeat.
From listening to the regulators talk, I learned they aren’t expecting you to be perfect. (Of course, I am not a lawyer, so this is not a legal opinion.) They are just expecting you to be trending in the right direction within the rules’ framework.
Have Compliance Everywhere
A major theme of the conference was the challenges compliance officers and departments face in dealing with other business units. This situation is not surprising because: a) almost everyone at the conference was from their company’s compliance department, and b) most business units do not like the idea of compliance restricting what they can do. However, as stated many times, it is imperative that not only should the compliance team be involved, in a proactive way, with every department, but it should also be brought in at the very beginning of any new project or initiative.
Most departments within an organization will hit the ground running with development, and then at the end, bring in the compliance or legal team to double-check everything or because they were told to include them, although they really don’t want them to mess up the plans they have been creating. Even though most groups don’t think it is best, the ideal time to bring in compliance or legal is at the start. That way, they can provide input and guidance for any compliance-related challenges they see on the horizon so the team can go down the right path the first time instead of having to redo part or all of it at the end.
I know you might believe, intellectually, in having compliance or legal involved from the start, but still not like the idea. But it makes total sense. And really, this should be your project management strategy for any initiative—to bring in any stakeholders affected by the project. I have seen so many projects get completely built out and ready to launch without anyone thinking to include the customer service team, processing team, or marketing team. The people building the project are so focused on their own needs or goals that they get tunnel vision.
Save yourself potential lost time and effort by bringing in compliance early and often. And make compliance a part of your organization’s culture, within each department, so it is not perceived as just “that other group we have to deal with.”
Compliance—it’s not fun; it’s not sexy; it’s not exciting. But it’s critical to the health of an organization with long-term goals of providing for its customers and employees.