Over the past decade, equipment finance companies have evolved into highly-efficient, process driven organizations focused on growing assets while simultaneously reducing costs – including business development training costs. The practice of reducing investments in the development of sales talent contrasts with the business models of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when leasing companies invested significant resources to develop top-level business origination talent.
There are certainly many valid reasons for this change of strategy beyond just saving money. It’s a new world – a world in which employer/employee loyalty seems to be just a memory, and as a result companies in many industries are hesitant to invest in developing the future capabilities of a business origination team. And of course, the need to reduce expenses is even more of a reality in today’s highly competitive environment – where each basis point of return is impacted by all expenses, including expenses related to the “onboarding” of volume.
The equipment finance industry was developed by highly trained and aggressive sales professionals who covered defined geographic regions – each responsible for generating as much business as possible from a seemingly finite prospect base. This part of the model hasn’t changed that much, yet previously valued customer and prospect personal-touch selling seems to be leaving the industry. And, as the talent pool within the equipment leasing and finance industry “grays” and the more experienced veterans leave the industry, so will the highly-effective sales practices employed by these successful sales professionals – possibly forever.
However, a few independent finance companies and banks are once again investing in the development of sales talent. These players have identified the lack of effective selling skills as a problem, and are leading the charge to build the sales talent pool in the equipment leasing and finance industry.
One independent leasing company making the investment of resources in its business development team is CSI Leasing (CSI). Headquartered in St. Louis, Mo., with more than 40 sales offices throughout the United States, CSI is one of the largest privately-held independent leasing companies in the world with customers in more than 36 countries.
To gain a clearer understanding of the evolution of the business origination function in the equipment finance industry and to learn a bit about the sales training initiatives instituted and embraced at CSI, we spoke with Robert (Bob) Rinaldi, Senior Vice President responsible for oversight of the organic and inorganic growth strategies of CSI tied to the company's core and non-core products, and Craig Ault, Executive Vice President and National Sales Manager responsible for revenue-generating organic growth within CSI – U.S. and Canada.
EFA: In general, do you believe the selling process in our industry has improved over the past 10+ years, or has it gone too far to the side of efficiency and low cost?
Rinaldi: Has it improved over the past 10 years? Well, yes and no. The tools of the trade have improved vastly with many more now available such as CRMs, LinkedIn, marketing databases, Constant Contact and a myriad of other marketing technologies. These tools have become incredibly valuable, and databases have become more robust than ever. But in my opinion, there has been a tendency to allow the tools to become the strategy as opposed to using the tools to implement the strategy. So generally, there seems to be a reliance on the digitalization of sales versus the passion of sales.
Ault: I think the industry has gone through some transitions. But I don’t believe CSI has modified its essential position in regards to sales, because we are staying within what we believe are our tried and true concepts of revenue generation. But overall I do believe the industry outside CSI has gone through some transitions and an overall reduction in the quality of selling skills utilized and increase in quantity of sales blanketing.
EFA: Do these changes create a potential for a lack of creativity in business development practices in the field?
Rinaldi: Over the past 20 years banks and captives have really taken a lion’s share of the volume away from independents. If you look at where the volume generation came from 20 years ago, the independents were fairly sizable in terms of total volume generation on a national scale. But over the past 20 years there’s been a lot of consolidation – in other words, banks and captives have purchased many of these independent leasing organizations. As a result, the amount of volume and originations being generated by the banks and captive lessors has shifted to their side. With that shift, the creativity has gone away in some cases because the business became more institutionalized within these larger organizations. This isn’t good or bad, but rather a reality.
But the actual relationship between the customer (borrower/lessee) and sales person (lessor) has been disintermediated. From a bank’s perspective, the bank relationship manager (usually within a C&I division) and the customer, define the overall relationship, and the leasing group is just one more product the relationship manager can espouse (or not). And in captives, it’s the same – where the account manager on the equipment side typically takes the lead in the relationship, thus driving the business to the leasing division. So these factors have obviously limited some creativity.
Ault: Creativity is certainly down from what it used to be historically. It’s now more order taking and a broad brush approach, focused on what rate it will take to win a deal versus developing a basic understanding of a customer’s needs and trying to develop creative solutions.
EFA: Has the overall sales process become so commoditized in the leasing industry that it’s hard for leasing representatives in any market to truly differentiate themselves by creating relationships?
Rinaldi: I think customers have become increasingly reliant upon email, for example, and are being inundated with information from many types of lessors including banks, independents, captives and the like – and they tend to ignore all of it at times. But that’s where the hard work and creativity of selling really comes in – to cut through the clutter utilizing various techniques and tools, along with dogged persistence to get back to the customer. I think the vast majority of decision makers do want to talk to a real person and want to know they can trust that person and develop a relationship – so it becomes more than what’s just in the proposal or contract.
EFA: Do you feel the basic tenants of good sales practices and concepts employed by seasoned veterans will leave our industry as the industry “grays”?
Ault: I don’t think that the concepts have to or should die. They can be transferred over to the next generation via education and training as well as through the stewards of this industry that try to maintain the tried and true methodologies. We (CSI) have stayed essentially very consistent with our feelings that a customer is better served by having a close relationship via face-to-face contacts. It’s our intent to keep that basic face-to-face selling culture alive and well into the future.
EFA: How difficult is it to find the right people – those capable of learning the sales skills desired for the leasing industry?
Ault: Finding quality personnel is one of the most difficult tasks. We have designed our hiring parameters in such a way that we believe they give us a better opportunity to improve our ability to hire good people. But, there is no perfect parameter or matrix. We simply developed and implemented a matrix that helps us identify key employee characteristics, and we try to effectively stay true to that, but time will be our best judge. These characteristics will prove that our next generation of sales people will be as successful or even more successful than our current generation.
The traits we are looking for are really very consistent with what we have always done – we take time to understand what has been successful in our traditional methods of relationship building and break those down in a way that we can take someone who does not already have a pre-determined view of sales and effectively start with a blank sheet of paper. So we try to take someone without any pre-disposition or understanding of the way it should be done in the leasing industry and formulate their habits in a way we feel it should be done.
EFA: Does CSI provide a formal sales training program?
Ault: Yes, there is a window of time we target for this education and training to occur and we combine one-on-one mentorship with group/in-class instruction throughout the process, and this includes the sales manager traveling with younger hires as part of the training process.
EFA: Why do you think more equipment finance companies have not implemented formal training programs similar to the CSI model?
Rinaldi: Training of this kind is time consuming and very expensive. And, it can also be considered distracting. But we are fortunate that we have a strong organization that can afford to make what I call “R&D” investments of this type. The company has the foresight under Craig’s leadership and strategy to commit to this program for the long term. That’s probably why you don’t hear much about such sales training programs.
EFA: Is it safe to say that a commitment to training of this type must be a philosophical and/or cultural belief of the company – one that permeates throughout the organization at all levels to be successful?
Rinaldi: Yes, and it must come from the top down. The senior leadership must support it financially and they must embrace the ideas that come from the field. We are fortunate here that we have a relatively flat organizational structure – the decision making is close with the top of the organization. So we can make decisions quickly. It’s also in our culture.
Ault: I agree. The credit for the ability to train sales people really goes to the senior directors of CSI – it would not have occurred if they did not believe in the value of this direction.
The issue of the “graying” of the talent pool within an industry is not unique to the equipment finance industry, and has been an active topic of conversation for years. Where the industry goes from here is yet to be seen, but as more and more finance companies and banks lose top-level sales talent, it seems safe to conclude that the focus on training must return for the benefit of the industry.
What are your thoughts? Do you think equipment finance companies and banks are investing sufficient resources into the training of business development professionals? Can the tried and tested methods of customer relationship building still make a difference in today’s digital marketing environment? We invite readers to send us their comments to email@example.com.
Robert J. (Bob) Rinaldi is Senior Vice President of CSI Leasing. Most recently Rinaldi served as Executive Vice President of National City Commercial Capital Company (NC4), now a part of PNC Bank, and President of NC4 Canada. Rinaldi has almost three decades of experience in the equipment leasing industry with positions including Senior Vice President of Provident Bank and Executive Vice President and Principal at Information Leasing Corp. (ILC). As a founding partner of ILC, Rinaldi helped grow the company to the fifth-largest bank-owned leasing company in the U.S.
An industry pioneer, Rinaldi has a solid background in leading companies to the forefront through innovative strategies, revenue production, creative marketing, new product development, technology solutions and international expansion.
He received a BS from Michigan State University and is an active member of the Equipment Leasing & Finance Association (ELFA). Rinaldi is a past trustee of the Equipment Lease and Finance Foundation (Foundation), a current member of the Foundation’s Research Subcommittee, past Chairman of the ELFA's LeasePAC and currently Vice Chairman of the ELFA’s board of directors.
Rinaldi can be found on LinkedIn and on his website dedicated to the pioneers of the modern equipment leasing industry as we know it today: www.leasingavenues.com.
Craig Ault is an Executive Vice President and National Sales Manager with CSI Leasing. Ault has been with CSI Leasing for 19 years.