11 Lessons Compliance People Can Learn From Salespeople

Michael Nyhuis

There is perhaps no worse feeling than doing a compliance job beyond reproach and learning in the next day's papers that your business is being fined $21 million, like one large pharmaceutical firm, or $6.3 million like one global bank.

Managers at the former were accused of bribery this year and the latter, discriminatory hiring practices the year before. What unites the two is that in both cases, the compliance professionals did their jobs. The proper guidelines and policies existed and were in effect - they simply were not followed. And in the end, it was all the same.

Much is said about the hard skills in compliance such as project management, measurement, and increasingly, software acuity. But too little is said about the fact that sometimes, it takes more than that. Sometimes, no amount of paperwork can convince a bad actor not to act, or a neutral actor not to stray.

Compliance officers know this messy reality well: Underneath the industry's buttoned-up, straight-laced, slide-rule strict exterior, the job of a compliance officer requires an awful lot of 'selling,' or convincing people to remain compliant. It requires someone with soft skills. So today, we take a cue from the people who make a living convincing others.

Eleven Sales Soft Skills for Compliance Professionals:

Salespeople know that people rarely do what they're told unless it's in their interest. That's why they draw from a bag of psychological tools to bring otherwise obstinate strangers over to their way of thinking. (And if possible, have them think it was their idea.) Good salespeople:

1. Ask 'What's in It for Me?'

'What's in it for me?' or 'WIIFM' for short, is the first question going through anyone's mind when presented with a request. If you can answer it, they're far more likely to comply. Yes, telling them it's the law may budge them, but it won't send them running like it would if they knew it's the gateway to their first commission check.

2. Automate the Boring Stuff

Today's compliance demands are beyond the pale of human understanding. There are over 120 international data privacy laws, not to mention hundreds of region-specific codes. Like a salesperson with a territory too large to manage themselves, it's up to compliance people to automate the boring stuff'to use compliance software to send follow-up emails when, say, an employee was scheduled to take harassment training but failed to show up. Or, needs to take action on a plan to bridge a gap discovered in an internal audit. _________________________________________________________________________________

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3. Front-Load the Important Stuff

In any message, place the most important part first. Salespeople do this in their email subject lines: Rather than asking, 'Want to have a chat? You'll have a chance to win this car.' They lead with, 'Want to win this car? Let's have a chat.' It's a value statement first, question second.

4. 'Yes, And'

Business may be business, but the workplace is swirling with emotion and people hate to be told no - even when they're wrong. A simple way to encourage a response and increase compliance is by using the sales technique 'Yes, and.' Instead of directly saying 'No,' first say 'Yes,' acknowledge the request's validity and then add clarification. For instance: 'Yes, that would be right, however we have to consider FRCP.'

5. Lower the Barrier

An analysis of 20 million sales emails found that most were between 50 to 125 words long. That's about 1-2 tweets. That's it. And that's because salespeople know people receive a large number of emails daily. In 2021, business and consumer emails sent and received per day are projected to exceed over 319 billion. Your message is competing for people's increasingly scarce attention and it's far better to convey the most important thing which then invites them to learn more than sending a novel-length email that sits forever unread. (Pair this with Lesson #1: WIIFM.)

6. Befriend the Gatekeepers

It's no longer fashionable to call receptionists 'gatekeepers,' but the old sales principle still stands: You never know who really holds power within an organization, and it's best to build fruitful relationships with all. You never know when you'll need them.

7. Aim for the Stars

When trying to get something done in an organization, it's usually best to first appeal to the highest-paid person in that department. Top-down pressure usually offers more leverage than bottom-up requests.

8. Boil the Frog

An old sales metaphor (that luckily isn't true) holds that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it'll quickly jump out. But if you place it in the water and slowly raise the temperature, it won't notice until it's too late. People may balk at an onslaught of new compliance requests. But requested one at a time ' spaced out and starting with the smallest ones ' you can get quite a lot done.

9. You Have to Tell Them Seven Times in Seven Ways

When communicating, always assume nobody has heard you, and if you want the message to stick, tell them seven times in seven ways. Try never to show any frustration, either. People are busy and nothing will turn them off of complying like being scolded for an email they missed.

10. Subtle Flattery Is Super Effective

Any message that first recognizes someone for something they pride themselves in'for instance, a wealth manager at making money ' is far more likely to be acted on.

11. Pick Your Battles

A salesperson who fights bitterly over every little point is unlikely to win the deal. Convincing others is a dance of give-get, of alternating request and concession. Those who demand but never concede often find themselves, after a time, dancing alone. _________________________________________________________________________________

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Michael Nyhuis
Michael Nyhuis is the former Director of Audit & Compliance at Diligent and a modern governance expert with over 25 years of experience.