Case Study: First Data Corporation Gets the Message

Industry: Payment processing

Objective: Reduce the 57 percent turnover rate of sales staff, while also boosting lagging performances

Solution: Bring in outside trainers One to One Leadership to work with staff, while also making internal adjustments in communicating goals and feedback between account executives and leadership

Results: More than 50 percent drop in attrition and a significant improvement in sales, not to mention a more open and engaging work environment

About a year and a half ago, the leadership of First Data Corp., a payment processing company based in Greenwood Village, Colo., knew that improvements needed to be made at the company. For one, the turnover rate among their 800 account executives was at 57 percent, and they wanted it down to 33 percent (slightly below the industry standard). Second, too many of their account executives weren’t hitting their numbers. While a few top sellers kept the overall sales from falling too far, 20 percent of the sales force weren’t even hitting 70 percent of their expected quotas.

“One of the things that we realized as we did a lot of our own research and our own data gathering regarding our organization was that everything else-productivity issues, morale issues, turnover issues-they all circle back to communication and leadership capabilities in the organization,” says James Wilhelm, vice president of human resources at First Data. The company seemed to have everything in place, from a large team of experienced sales personnel to a clear organizational structure. But it was having trouble tapping into that potential and maximizing the plentiful resources it had. Like Ali Baba standing outside the cave, for First Data, accessing the available treasures was a matter of saying the right word.

Communication issues are a funny problem for a company like First Data. As a payment processing organization, much of its aim is to transfer information clearly between organizations. When a customer buys something at a retailer with his or her credit card, First Data processes the information between the store and the financial institution. But with most of its account executives and managers working from home, a focused, company-wide message was difficult to establish.

So First Data reached out to Longboat Key, Fla.-based training company One to One Leadership. The company is a small one: It was run just by Mary Ann O’Neil until a few years ago, when her son Sean, who had been working as a corporate lawyer, decided to give corporate training a try. The two have worked as a duo since.

Before beginning the formal training, Sean and Mary Ann spent almost two months in “fact-finding” mode with the company, joining reps on their sales calls, interviewing managers, conducting focus groups and researching the company. They took the information they learned and modified their standard curriculum to fit specifically with the industry and company and culture.

“It was definitely a program designed for long-term impact, not quick hit,” says Wilhelm.

To begin the formal training, One to One asked managers to take an assessment similar to the Myers-Briggs personality test, with answers to various questions revealing their present style of managing and the implications for their ability to manage.

“You could see lightbulbs going off and people saying, ‘Oh my God, I did that just this morning before I got in here,'” says Mary Ann. After determining their “style,” managers estimated the style of those they managed, discussing the key drivers and motivators that got them to really achieve.

The goal of these assessments was not sensitivity training, but to dislodge the communication barriers between sales staff and managers. “You have to be able to modify your approach and so forth, based on the people around you; that is a key tool in helping them become better leaders,” says Wilhelm.

Blocking and Tackling

The training then went on to what Wilhelm calls “the blocking and tackling of being an effective leader.” Over a series of sessions, using role-playing, film clips, and question and answer segments, One to One broke down the essentials of powerful leadership, piece by piece, explaining how to choose the right words in speaking with subordinates, how and when to give feedback (once a year is too little, once a minute too much), and many of the classic mistakes managers make in their approaches.`

For example, Sean and Mary Ann point out that a question or request can come in the form of an “arrow” or a “feather”-with the softer approach being generally more effective.

First Data’s leadership team stresses how important it was for the salespeople to see where the communication and performance models One to One was presenting fit into their work performance. There was a clear point to the practices and behaviors they were learning in the workshops, without which the students would have had trouble focusing and staying engaged. They actually role-played, and putting pen to paper determined how exactly they would implement what was discussed in the classroom back at the office.

“It was a pretty dramatic shift because it was like giving the whole team a shot of something new, like a new set of tools that they could use,” says Sean. “[The students] encouraged each other to use them, they were kind of questioning ‘was that consistent with this model?’ which just kind of kept the momentum going.”

In combination with the training, members of the leadership changed to a more open approach in coordinating the extensive First Data sales team. According to Anthony Lucatuorto, senior vice president of sales for First Data, efforts to create a culture of open communication meant increasing the collaboration between managers and salespeople. While before, the environment bordered on a “dictatorship,” according to Lucatuorto, in which the few times managers spoke to their subordinates it was to tell them what to do, soon he and others were seeing executives becoming more aware of communication, self-awareness, feedback and collaboration.

“Anthony and his team spent a tremendous amount of time communicating,” says Wilhelm. “Communicating in person, doing a roadshow with the account executives talking about the investments they were trying to make in making their jobs better and in helping their leaders be better leaders. Weekly communications about the status of the employees that were struggling, what we could do to help them or if we need to replace them.”

This was accompanied by an emphasis on quality over quantity.

“The previous thinking was that the more feet on the streets, the better chance to succeed,” Wilhelm explains; the belief was that as long as the sales associates sold anything, it was better than nothing. “But we [began to] spend more time on the people who were at seventy percent and get them to eighty-five percent, and the people at ninety percent to one hundred percent, and saw how much more impact that had on the engagement of their team and the morale of their team, but also in the end, the productivity,” says Wilhelm.

With a more open, collaborative culture in place, improvements came quickly and dramatically. Months after beginning their initiatives, First Data’s attrition rate had dropped to 26 percent, or less than half of what it had been. One to One saw clear improvements in the performance of those who went through their training. Looking at the first five teams to take their training, One to One found an average of 19.8 percent had been failing to make 70 percent of their expected sales; after the training this group’s average dropped to 11 percent.

“These folks, in my years in the industry, were the best training I’ve ever been through personally,” says Lucatuorto.

Seeing the investments being made on their behalf by the leadership actually boosted the account executives’ support for the changes. In turn this strengthened their commitment to First Data Corp. As Lucatuorto says, “Knowing now the investment we’ve made in the leadership team and the fact that the reps are seeing it, we’re getting more and more recruits.”