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December 17, 2021

Is ‘sales’ really a dirty word?

‘Sales’ should be seen as a force for good, if you sincerely believe that the customer’s best interests are your principle concern. This is a lot easier to say though, than it is to do.


There are organisations who won’t have the word ‘Sales’ uttered in their corridors; like it was an unspeakable medieval act, that has been banished to the annuls of history. For whatever semantic distinction is most palatable; without ‘sales’ revenue, businesses can’t exist. ‘Sales’ should be seen as a force for good, if you sincerely believe that the customer’s best interests are your principle concern. This is a lot easier to say though, than it is to do.

This post and its commentary, is based on research and experience of the Singapore financial services industry. I do believe, that the discussion points raised are relevant to all financial services centres globally as the challenges experienced as a result of the global financial crisis were experienced everywhere. I will let you be the judge of this.

First the good news. The financial services sector is one of the key pillars of the Singapore economy. It accounts for about 13% of GDP, and the sector employs about 200,000 people. It creates good jobs and has strong positive demand spill overs on the rest of the economy.  Financial Services will become even more important in the future economy. If the sector continues to grow at its current rate; twice as fast as the Singapore economy – it will make up 14% of GDP in 2020, compared to 11% in 2010.

Now, the bad news. The global financial industry is facing unprecedented headwinds. It is looking at a prolonged period of low growth and low interest rates – a combination that spells reduced earnings and increased risks for most financial institutions. The regulatory and compliance burden is relentless, following wide-ranging regulatory reforms stemming from the global financial crisis. These reforms were necessary to help make global finance safer; but their cumulative effects pose a challenge for the profitability of financial institutions. This is nothing new. 

Concurrently, the financial services industry is facing a crisis of trust. Financial institutions have come under increasing public scrutiny over their business conduct. Globally, we have seen repeated cases of miss-selling financial products, manipulating benchmark rates, and using the financial system for illicit transactions. Singapore’s financial sector has to overcome these headwinds and manage these risks as it develops further.  More than ever before, the industry needs to adopt client centricity at its core; not just in name, but in language process and systems. It is the only way to restore the trust and credibility it once had. 

Amongst all the talk of liquidity ratios, regulatory and compliance reforms, we hear very little about investment in human capital development as a solution for the problems we face. I know that it happens in pockets; I work with financial services businesses who see the development of people as a key strategic lever. But this should not just be seen as a catalyst for improved sales performance, it’s also an opportunity for long-term cost reduction.

Regulation and compliance are reactive by nature (although they try to be proactive), to protect both the client and themselves from malfeasance.  New protective regulations, generally happen after the problem has been discovered. These checks and balances, create an extraordinary cost burden on businesses. I am in no way saying they are not warranted or justified, but there could be another point of focus.  

I began my Financial Services career in the UK, in the mid-90’s, just as compliance entered the vernacular of Financial Services professionals. Looking back, few of us would disagree; prevention would have been the best cure as it would in any other arena of life. But hind-sight is 20-20 vision as they say.

I contend; if the appropriate (customer centric) selling behaviours had been adopted, then the Financial Services industry (lock-stock and barrel), might not be where it is today. That’s easy to say. Now, I assert, is the time to change. Adopt ‘client centricity’; not just in name, but in language process and systems. It is the only way to restore the credibility the industry once had. 

There is a litany of miss-selling examples we could illustrate that typically remain undetected (until too late) by regulators. I contentiously suggest; that compliance has not succeeded in achieving its goal. Although it is impossible to determine how much it has stopped.

As the cost of compliance gets heavier and heavier, there is a solution, that only a few are embracing. What am I talking about? The educating and development of people so that customer-centricity becomes natural, because it makes business sense – and is not just a soundbite. 

Let’s stop. What do we really mean by being customer-centric? It’s the ability to place the customer’s best interests at the heart of the business’ and marketing objectives. How many businesses truly do this? Yet, we all know that when we put the customer first, it pays back time and time again! Let’s really get back to basics.


The Win-Win matrix (above) asserts that there are four possible outcomes in any client engagement/relationship. One of these produces repeat business, referrals and customer loyalty and the rest do not. 

Let’s start with lose-win and win-lose. There is a litany of examples where the customer loses, which we call - lose-win, or, where businesses lose because of an unsustainable client mandate – win-lose. The key takeaway; no one stays in either of these two unstable quadrants indefinitely –  the outcome will always be a shift to lose-lose. 

Logically we can therefore acknowledge; the only place you can realistically remain in a client relationship, over the long-term is win-win. This isn’t anything new, we all know this intuitively, yet Financial Services had been beleaguered by lose-win situations for as long as I can remember. Where has all this ended up? - lose-lose. To put it another way, customer mistrust and massive compliance costs. That’s about as lose-lose as you can get. 

The mind-set that leads to win-win is customer centricity. I am very confident to say, that unless there is a structure and framework in place for customer centricity, it’s not going to happen wholesale on its own.

It is our salespeople who lead the industry. They lead by how they engage with their customers. If we embed customer-centricity deeply into the culture of the business and by extension the industry, the benefits are manifold. Let’s think of a few.

As well as an expected up-tick in your sales revenue and corresponding sales metrics, you can also expect less reliance on compliance and regulation to watch out for the miss-selling and malpractice. Because at the businesses’ core, is a commitment to customer centricity and a maturity level that without compromise, focusses on the customer’s best interests. Even when, in the short-term, this could mean a loss, it’s the long-game that will win out.

Economic headwinds fuelled by a slowing China, Fed rate rises, fewer IPOs and Mergers and prolonged period of slow economic growth, coupled with the burden of compliance impacting profitability of financial services firm; we are in the midst of increasingly challenging times. 

Creating differentiation at the product level is challenging, as compliance serves to endorse the homogeny of offering. Differentiation therefore, MUST happen through the way we sell. In other words, the way we sell has to become a critical and strategic differentiator. And here’s the rub; when this is the case, we get a Win-Win situation ourselves. A win for the client, a win for the business and a win for the industry - restoring the trust deficit that pervades the industry all over the world.

Will this be easy? It won’t be as hard as most people believe. It takes just a few to culturally commit process and systems that are the hallmark of true customer centric selling.

To my original question; is sales a dirty word? I work with numerous businesses in the financial services sector throughout Southeast Asia, for whom the very utterance of the word ‘sales’ makes people physically shrink. Yet, sales remain critical to business survival. And whilst this most fundamental of human activities exists, we should all work to ensure that selling is way of solving a client’s problems and not solving the selling businesses problems. 

Thanks for reading and wishing you the best of good fortune on your journey. 

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