LAS VEGAS—Just nine months after the conclusion of one of the nastiest, most vitriolic presidential election campaigns in history, the normally nice and polite credit union world got a taste of bluster, trash talking and name calling – all in the spirit of creating dialogue about the virtues of introducing a sales culture in credit unions.

It all took place at Caesar’s Place here, during the 40th edition of the Directors & CEOs Leadership Convention. For more coverage of the first day's events, click here.

The “combatants” for what the conference billed as The Main Event were Brett Christensen, owner of CU Lending Advice LLC and Jim Blaine, retired CEO of SECU, Raleigh, N.C. Conference chairman Dennis Sullivan dressed for the part of ring announcer and did Michael Buffer proud with stirring introductions. Sullivan also stepped between the two when the verbal conflict threatened to turn physical.

Conference Chairman Dennis Sullivan moderated "The Main Event" at the 2017 CU Directors and CEOs Conference in Las Vegas, a verbal sparring match between Jim Blaine and Brett Christiansen.
Conference Chairman Dennis Sullivan moderated "The Main Event" at the 2017 CU Directors and CEOs Conference in Las Vegas.

Christensen led off with a strong declaration: He noted when he first started in lending consulting there were 23,000 credit unions, but that number is down to 5,900 today. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are in a war. If you don’t know that, I don’t know what to tell you. This is a dog-eat-dog business, and I am afraid a lot of you are wearing the Puppy Chow underwear.”

Turning to Blaine, Christensen said, “Jim, I am not saying either you or your opinions are old, but you are looking very seasoned.”

According to Christensen, the best way for CUs to make money is to get loans in their members’ hands. To do that, he said, they have to have employees who can move the product. “You are not running a bank or a finance company, you are working at a credit union. What are you afraid of selling your products for? Sell them, and you will be doing your members a big favor. How many members do we have for years that have no loans?”

Christensen said nothing he teaches to his credit unions clients has anything to do with what happened at Wells Fargo. “That was fraud. If any of your employees sell your members products without their knowledge, then fire their butts and call the cops,” he roared.

Blaine offered a counterpunch, saying any discussion of adopting a sales culture in a credit union is “talking about all the wrong things.”

Retired SECU CEO Jim Blaine spoke out against CU sales cultures during "The Main Event" at the 2017 CU Directors and CEOs Conference in Las Vegas
Retired SECU CEO Jim Blaine spoke out against CU sales cultures during "The Main Event" at the 2017 CU Directors and CEOs Conference in Las Vegas

“I challenge the basic assumption that a sales culture will work at a credit union,” Blaine asserted. “There is nothing wrong with sales, but sales in a service organization does not work. Those two notions – sales and service – are incompatible. Credit unions are a service business. When you apply the wrong techniques to any job you get bad results. To drive a nail into a wall you need a hammer, not a screwdriver. If you try to use a screwdriver to drive a nail, you are going to get screwed – just like in sales.”

For a long time people believed the earth is flat, Blaine pointed out. “Don’t believe incorrect assumptions,” he told the audience. “Why introduce a sales culture at credit unions? What is the goal? What problem are you trying to solve? Look out for what you are introducing.”

Round 2
To lead off Round 2, Christensen turned one of Blaine’s questions back at him.

“What problem are we trying to solve? A low loan-to-share ratio,” Christensen said. “We need loans at the credit union. They are our financial lifeblood. We have great products that have great rates and great fees.”

Christensen offered several examples of sales success at credit unions, referencing one CU sales rep who he said could sell ice to an Eskimo and sand to a Hawaiian.

“I hope you listen to what Brett is preaching,” Blaine retorted. “The guy who can sell ice to an Eskimo is celebrated by a sales culture. You are defrauding your members when you sell them ice and they are Eskimos. My employees were about serving the members with whom they had a relationship. Wells Fargo was selling ice to Eskimos. If you want to be a second-class bank, go ahead and be one, but we have enough second-class banks in this country.”

According to Blaine, if a CU installs a sales culture, that action tears apart the staff because the people at the CU become focused on who gets the credit for the sale. “It no longer is a team effort,” he insisted.

The battle continues
As Round 3 began, Christensen insisted sales cultures can bring in much-needed loans without harming members.

“We are not holding a gun to the members’ head, we are stealing loans from the enemy,” he declared. As Blaine interjected, Christensen continued, “If you don’t like the word ‘stealing,’ use the word ‘rescue.’”

Brett Christensen, owner of CU Lending Advice LLC, told the crowd at the CU Directors and CEOs Conference in Las Vegas that sales cultures can help CUs grow.
Brett Christensen, owner of CU Lending Advice LLC, told the crowd at the CU Directors and CEOs Conference in Las Vegas that sales cultures can help CUs grow.

After a bit more back and forth, the two offered their closing arguments. In classic wrestling fashion, Christensen’s was pre-taped.

On the big screens inside the conference hall came a Muppet-like creature ostensibly giving a year-in-review speech to employees of an unnamed company. The faux CEO started talking calmly and serenely, eventually building up to a frenzy of “Sell, sell, sell!”

“The one word is sell,” Christiansen emphasized.

“It is appropriate that Brett used a puppet in that video, because the sales culture is making your staff into puppets,” Blaine said to a roar of laughter.

Blaine said four questions have to be answered before a CU institutes a sales culture:

  1. What is the goal and purpose in implementing a sales culture?
  2. What is the board-approved mission statement?
  3. Does a sales culture fit with that mission statement?
  4. How does your membership benefit from a sales culture?

“A sales culture ranks products and ranks employees for the incentive program,” he said. “We are a member-owned cooperative. In most business, sales are distinguished from service. When you put in an incentive system, you are substituting quantity for quality. Banks are for-profit businesses and they are sales organizations. Credit unions are different. It is a wonderful thing.”