What “Free Solo” Can Teach Mortgage Originators

Patricia Sherlock

I just watched the Oscar and BAFTA award-winning documentary “Free Solo” which follows Alex Honnold as he climbs Yosemite’s El Capitan, a 3,000-foot granite monolith, without ropes. This is an incredible story as Honnold becomes the first person ever to accomplish the feat. The film is breathtaking and gives viewers the feeling that you are actually climbing with him. The beauty and danger of El Capitan is on full display. You cannot watch the documentary without being overwhelmed by his achievement. But, what struck me most about Honnold’s story is the intense preparation and practice he put in before attempting to scale the wall. Honnold analyzed the climb in great depth. He kept a journal of his observations, visualized what he was going to do and then practiced scaling the wall with ropes. He fell many times during the practice sessions which says something about his courage. In my view, the most interesting part was that he didn’t wing it. I believe there is an important lesson here for those of us in mortgage banking.

Although Honnold is known as one of the world’s best free solo climbers, he was smart enough to practice deliberately. His practice sessions went on for months because he knew that one mistake on the wall and he would be dead. Obviously, in a life-and-death matter one would expect that anyone would be as diligent as he was; but as we often see, that is not always the case. Honnold’s challenge was to align his thinking with his muscles to execute unconsciously during his scaling of El Capitan.

Mastering difficult techniques until they become second nature isn’t easy but it is what above-average originators do to win in today’s marketplace. For top producers, succeeding in origination is their own version of climbing El Capitan. I know from conducting sales training for many years, the best students are always the most successful originators who still want to get better. These individuals work hard, ask the best questions, practice their new skills and implement what they have been taught.

In my recent sales training program on social media and lead generation, it was the top producers who used the new information quickly and applied it to their business models. They did not argue that social media is bad as low-performing originators often do. Instead, the top producers recognized that first-time home buyers and referral sources are using social media platforms more frequently and that using these communication tools in their prospecting efforts is imperative if if they want to be successful.

Originators who resist the new selling methods will inevitably be left behind and before they realize it, they also will be out of a job. The reason is simple: Lenders will no longer be able to afford to carry them.

It is clear to me that mortgage banking is at a crossroads where costs are high and production is difficult. Every day I speak with lenders and hear the same things about how business is really hard with many firms conducting price wars. The reasons why this has happened can be debated, but the reality is that mortgage banking firms must scale the “granite wall” or cease to exist. This isn’t gloom and doom, but simply a fact that companies must reinvent themselves to stay competitive. This takes hard work and encompasses installing perpetual change in their culture and implementing changes with a disciplined approach.

Yes, it is a tough environment. Managers who once held high-level positions are now realizing that there are not a lot of these jobs available today. Many hold on to the status quo hoping they can weather the storm. The same goes for originators and back-office personnel. But the good news is as an industry, below-average performing companies and vendors will be replaced by firms that are innovative in their marketing and processes. We are already seeing some real innovation: Chase is guaranteeing to close a loan in 21 days. Hopefully soon, some other lender will guarantee 10 days for all loans. It is clear that new ideas are needed in the industry and not just the traditional response of taking on greater credit risk to generate business. We have seen what happens when that is the dominant strategy.

As Charles Dickens wrote, “this is the best of times and the worst of times.” I agree. The solution is we need more managers and originators who are willing to deliberately practice new selling techniques.

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