“Be thankful that many people don’t care that much … it makes it that much easier to succeed when you DO care.”
—Me, circa 2010
I’ve given my daughter Emily quite a bit of advice over the years, which I’d like to believe are all treasured pearls of wisdom that she remembers to this day (insert eyeroll here), but this was one that I know stuck with her.
We had just made our way to a well-known retailer in search of bathing suits. Not necessarily the most eagerly anticipated shopping trip, but with a summer trip on the horizon, it had to be done. We entered not knowing exactly where said suits would be found, and literally six employees passed us, carefully avoiding eye contact so ostensibly they wouldn’t be enlisted for help.
We searched and finally found a few suits, but alas, no dressing rooms in sight. We chased down an employee to inquire, and after an eyeroll and even a “huff” of some sort — she pointed and said they were in the back corner. After trying a few on with no luck and no assistance, we gathered up the rejected suits and were promptly accosted by a dressing room attendant who appeared from out of nowhere to shame us for having brought in more than five suits at a time. Suffice it to say, the situation did not improve, and we left aggravated and empty-handed.
And over the ice cream that improved our mood if not our bathing suit physiques, I gave Emily the following advice: When you’re treated poorly as a customer, you should actually be thankful that so many employees do not seem to care. It makes it so much easier to succeed when you DO care because the bar is often unfortunately set so low.
Later, I learned that the employee experience at that retailer was considered one of the worst in the business — unhappy employees were not treated well and suffered from a negative culture and a lack of communication from leadership. So, it made sense — the poor customer experience was no surprise. And I was not surprised to see this retailer file for bankruptcy a few years later.
It’s been said before by many of the world’s top customer experience strategists: your customer experience can never rise above your employee experience. Think about that for a moment — the quality of the customer experience which drives your revenues is capped by the quality of your employee experience.
Many of us have been guilty of having a relentless focus on the customer experience without paying enough attention to the experiences of the staff we ask to work for and with our customers. It’s important to note that employee experience and employee engagement are not the same thing. Employee experience is the means to achieve the goal and end result of employee engagement. The extent and quality of employee engagement relates directly to the quality of the employees’ experience.
So, how’s your company’s employee experience? If it doesn’t rise to the top of your “things to work on” list right now, it should. It matters deeply in the struggle to get and keep the right people who will then delight your customers.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the employee experience, show how it’s directly connected to the customer experience and hear from some of the nation’s leading lenders on what they are doing right now to make sure they empower their employees to deliver the kinds of borrower experiences that will set them up for great success.
Every company already has an employee experience, though many executives never think about it. They understand the concept of company culture, and plenty of time is spent trying to create one that will make it easier to recruit and retain good people, but the day-to-day experience of the people on the front lines is rarely considered. At least part of the reason for this is due to the nature of the mortgage industry; loan officers and teams are entrepreneurial, self-motivated and function as “companies within companies.” It’s understandable that leaders could assume producers are content because they are in charge of their own practices.
As a result, it’s highly unlikely mortgage lenders are focused on employee experience right now. How could they be? With volumes down now by more than half of what they were two years ago, the cost to originate a new loan at around $13,000 and virtually no refinance business to be had, lenders are spending most of their time just trying to keep their heads above water.
Here’s why it’s time to move employee experience and engagement up on your list:
Ask the average executive how their people are doing, and they will likely base a response on the number of complaints received from direct reports. But when times are tough like they are in the mortgage industry where we are seeing downsizing, very few — if any — employees will file a complaint because they think it could get them moved to the top of the layoff list. (Notable exception being commissioned loan officers, who generally don’t hesitate to speak their minds.)
But make no mistake: salaried or commissioned, employees all talk to each other about their experiences in the workplace. They may not be talking to management about it — in fact they are probably not — but they are talking to each other and making decisions based on what they learn.
Just focusing on negative comments from employees is not a very good measure of actual employee satisfaction. WorldatWork is a professional association for human resources leaders that studies this. It publishes an annual report on employee satisfaction. According to the latest data, the average employee satisfaction score in 2022 was 70.3 out of 100 … not that hot.
Gallup conducts an annual survey to measure employee satisfaction, engagement, and well-being for workforces around the world. The “State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report” shows that 59% of workers in the U.S. and Canada region are “quiet quitting” and 18% are just walking away from their jobs (loud quitting). Part of the problem is stress on the job.
It is simply not possible for a lender to deliver an outstanding borrower experience if their employees are not engaged. Without engagement, all the problems that are currently occupying management’s time get worse. Much worse.
One big reason for getting this right — right now — is recruiting and retention.
Loan originators have far fewer loans in their pipelines today, meaning two things: (1) the golden handcuffs of the refinance pipelines are off and they are willing and able to move, and (2) they are making a lot less money right now, so a good signing bonus (which are out there right now) may be all it takes to get them to leave.
But they won’t leave if they love working for the company they are with now. That’s all about their experience and that is why employee experience needs to be a strategic imperative for lenders now.
There are those who will tell you keeping your employees satisfied is as simple as paying more, but increasingly workers are looking well beyond the paycheck. Here are four major factors that are impacting employee satisfaction and engagement today along with insights from several lenders that recently won industry awards for being a top or best place to work.
1. Culture and Leadership
According to VantageCircle, an organization that works with companies on delivering a satisfying employee experience through recognition and wellness solutions, in 2023 we are seeing the rise of a “culture-first decade.” These lenders shared the impact of their cultures on their employees:
“At Highlands Residential Mortgage, our commitment to an exceptional employee experience is unmatched. With accessible senior leadership for immediate inquiries and casual catch-ups, our Recognize App fostering appreciation and point-based rewards, and our monthly newsletter celebrating achievements, life milestones, and team camaraderie, we cultivate a culture where every member is valued and connected.”
— Becky Hale, SVP Marketing/IT Program Manager | Highlands Residential Mortgage
“It starts with hiring the right people … we don’t hire job hoppers and high character is a must … we use Culture Index not only for hiring purposes but so each manager can learn how to get the most out of the different personalities on their team. We acknowledge and show appreciation for tenure…there are gifts and or appreciation acknowledgments for every five-year milestone and on our employee ten-year milestone, our fulfillment team members get to attend our annual sales incentive trip that we have been doing for over 20 years.”
— Kenny Hodges, Chief Executive Officer | Assurance Financial
“Union Home Mortgage doesn’t have employees, they have Partners. The title reflects the company’s deep commitment to its people and its exceptional culture, unrivaled in the mortgage industry. UHM lays out its foundational beliefs in its Code of Conduct, which outlines shared values including Communication, Accountability and Commitment to Each Other. That commitment is reflected each year during the All Partners Conference, or APC, which brings Partners from across the country to its headquarters in Northeast Ohio to connect, learn and honor fellow Partners, as well as a separate national tour conducted by UHM’s leadership to meet and listen to Partners in their local markets.”
— Mary Udivich, Human Resources Manager | Union Home Mortgage
“At Churchill people are the most valuable part of the company. Whether it’s our customers, our partners or our employees, our aim is to leave people better for the encounter. When people are the center of decision-making, interactions feel different. We truly believe that makes Churchill the unique place that it is. We’re thankful every day for the people we are blessed to work with, both internally and externally.”
— Whitney Blessington, Chief Marketing Officer | Churchill Mortgage Corporation
Many companies are realizing the importance of their culture in retaining top talent across the spectrum of industries, and the likes of Hilton, SalesForce and American Express are actively working to implement strategies to reinvent their company cultures. Employees want to work in a positive and supportive culture with good leaders.
2. Compensation and Benefits
What the employee takes home may not be the only factor, but it’s obviously important. Employees want to be paid fairly and have access to good benefits — and rarely leave an employer because of compensation alone.
However, when you are dealing with mortgage loan officers who are primarily commission based and technically create their own compensation, it becomes a key consideration when the market is as tough as it is right now. Ensuring your compensation is fair and competitive is critical in today’s market, which is why STRATMOR works with many lenders on their compensation strategies.
For much more on the topic of compensation, read Senior Partner Garth Graham’s article, “Sales Compensation: Do You Get What You Pay For?”
3. Work-Life Balance
For executives working in our industry, a work-life balance may sound like a fairy tale. But our partners have creative ways to help their people participate in things that are important to them outside of and beyond their work:
“We have a PTO donation bank, allowing our team members to donate to others on the team who may be experiencing a need that requires additional PTO.”
— Jessica Swink, Vice President Digital and Brand Experience | Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group
“Our ‘How Bell of You’ award program highlights employees going above and beyond every day and our Pay it Forward program provides funds for every team member to give to individuals, families or organizations in need. These programs, along with engaging every person to do the little things every day to create a positive impact to those around them are the things that instill an environment where people feel excited, empowered and engaged — no matter what headwinds they may be faced with.”
— Tony Weick, President | Bell Bank Mortgage
Employees want to be able to balance their work and personal lives and to engage with what matters to them; even though our job is to cater to our real estate partners and borrowers on their chosen (and often tight) timelines.
4. Opportunities for Growth and Development
Employees want to have opportunities to learn and grow in their careers. Leaders can help producers and operations team members feel recognized and avoid stagnation if they make employee career development a priority and practice.
“We have an open-door policy and believe our executive management team should be accessible to all team members and encourage our team to communicate if they feel we are not putting them in a position to accomplish their goals.”
— Kenny Hodges, Chief Executive Officer | Assurance Financial
“At Atlantic Bay, it all goes back to our core values: We genuinely care, we inspire growth, and we have fun. It’s not just saying these core values at the beginning of a meeting — it’s demonstrating them from the top-down. For example, our CEO Brian Holland leads with genuine care as he meets with each new employee when they join our company.”
— Jessica Swink, Vice President Digital and Brand Experience | Atlantic Bay Mortgage Group
“Our strong reputation of 30+ years stems from the unwavering trust we place in our exceptional team, always standing behind their diligent efforts to do the right thing for all clients and the company. Our leadership team is also committed to ensuring every employee has the tools, programs, and support to succeed, fostering a culture of growth and shared success.”
— Christine Rhea, President/CEO | Mortgage Investors Group
Of the four categories on the employee experience wish list, culture rises to the top. Ultimately, it’s employee engagement that drives the customer experience, and culture is what drives employee engagement. But culture is the result of all the things a company does right, as well as all the things employees might think the company does wrong.
And that makes dialing in the right culture a different process for different types of organizations.
Banks are different from IMBs, distributed and centralized models have different experiences, as do channels such as Consumer Direct and Retail or Third-Party Originations — all impact the employee perspective, which will drive the borrower experience.
But there are key elements central to any employee experience strategy. Regardless of the company we’re with or the job we have, we all want to understand our role and those of others around us. We need open, timely, honest communication. We want recognition, connection, a sense of purpose and empowerment, all of which drive the employee’s experience to ensure ultimate engagement — pride, commitment to the company, etc.
It’s clear that improving the employee experience offers many benefits, but how is it connected to our borrowers? To put it simply: Happy employees make for happy customers.
Virtually every lender we’ve visited in the past few years has told us how important the borrower’s experience is to their business. Lenders fully understand that this is a requirement in our industry. Let’s put the borrower experience in context with the employee experience.
STRAMOR Group MortgageCX Director Michael Seminari, an expert in the customer experience for banking and mortgage lenders, will tell you there are several factors that contribute to increased borrower satisfaction. These include the lender’s communication, responsiveness, transparency and overall customer service.
According to data from STRATMOR’s borrower survey programs, based on more than one million plus borrower surveys, 89 percent of borrowers choose their lender based on:
“Borrowers who are satisfied with their lender are more likely to refer others to that lender, and they are also less likely to switch lenders in the future,” says Seminari. “If you want to increase your top of funnel, you must increase positive experiences. And since positive experience is driven primarily by the process, not the LO, you must work on creating a more delightful loan process. When you do, you produce more raving fans, which leads to more repeat and referral business. How much more? One in five Promoters turns into a new loan (21.33% pull-through).”
Borrowers want to choose a lender that provides a positive experience. And that means more than a rate and good online testimonials. It’s all about the experience the lender provided to borrowers in the past, and that’s all about the employees that provided it.
I hate to even use the word, but it’s likely that the pandemic, now thankfully in the rear-view mirror, is still having a significant impact on employee engagement. Research shows that many employees, in general, not just in our industry, are feeling stressed and burned out. This is leading them to seek more flexibility and work-life balance, something hard to come by in our business.
The Great Resignation, while it didn’t impact our industry as directly as many others, has also made it more difficult for organizations of all kinds to find and retain good employees because everyone’s expectations have changed.
Another thing the lending industry is dealing with now is the war for talent. Our industry, perhaps more than most, knows about the extremely high rate of competition between businesses for top talent.
Also, the future of work is changing rapidly with the advance of new AI tools that are springing up all over the mortgage industry. If the economic downturn wasn’t enough, now employees must wonder if new technologies will replace them in the near future.
By far the biggest obstacle to improving employee engagement is management distraction. In our conversations with lenders, we often hear that employee satisfaction is important to them. Yet when you feel you are drowning, you don’t really care about the color of the boat you just fell off. It’s easy to understand why this hasn’t been a focus, but we continue to believe it is imperative to the future success of all lenders.
And once leaders truly see the wisdom in focusing greater attention on their employees’ experience, they have to determine how they are going to change it. If lenders want to improve employee engagement, they need more information.
So, how can leaders find out about the current state of the employee experience and what it will take to change it?
You have to ask them.
There are many employee engagement models available in the market that lenders can use to measure employee engagement and, in turn, improve the borrower experience. We list three well-known ones here — and each may be appropriate for different companies. By understanding what factors are important to employee engagement, organizations can create a workplace that is more satisfying and productive for their employees.
The PEARL Model
The PEARL Model is a framework for measuring employee engagement. It was developed by People Insight, a UK-based employee engagement consultancy and is based on five factors: purpose, empowerment, alignment, relationships and learning and development.
More importantly, it provides direction for preparing regular surveys so the company’s employee experience can be measured along each of these metrics to let lenders know how well they are doing in the metrics that matter to their employees.
The Gallup Engagement Model
Based on the idea that employee engagement is a key driver of performance, this model asks about basic needs of employees with something called the Q12:
The Job Characteristics Model
This model is based on the idea that the design of a job can significantly impact employee motivation. It identifies five core job characteristics that motivate employees.
These are just a few of the many models and processes available. The best model or process for a particular organization will depend on the specific needs of the organization and its employees, and the best one for your company will be the one you actually can implement and use.
Given all of this, what should lenders consider when it comes to measuring and improving their employee experience?
STRATMOR Group practices what we preach, so we do put our own advice to the test, and annually survey our own team members about their satisfaction. We’ve learned some things that prompted us to launch a number of new initiatives.
The surprising thing was that we didn’t have to wait for these initiatives to be completed to see the increase in internal satisfaction. Communicating and then moving toward a better future was all it took to start building an even stronger corporate culture, which will continue to offer our company benefits for some time.
If you’re ready to measure and improve your own employee satisfaction and engagement, talking with a STRATMOR advisor is a great first step and it comes at no cost or obligation. It’s also completely confidential. Now is the time to dial in a stronger corporate culture. Leaders who do this now will emerge even stronger when the market turns. Woodard
STRATMOR works with bank-owned, independent and credit union mortgage lenders, and their industry vendors, on strategies to solve complex challenges, streamline operations, improve profitability and accelerate growth. To discuss your mortgage business needs, please Contact Us.