Interview – Mark Rockliffe

At times of crisis, many firms double–down on sales and conversions, and branding slips off the agenda. With a distinguished career in distribution, Mark Rockliffe shares his understanding of how brand supports sales and the importance of balancing the short and long term needs of the business.

Interviews | 4 minutes read | Michael Gough

Interview – Mark Rockliffe
Interview – Mark Rockliffe

Sparks: We’ve had conversations with a couple of prospects who are very focused on sales and distribution, and who take the view that ‘we’ll get to the brand later.’ The brand building gets put on hold because of the short–term desire to get revenue into the business. But that’s a false economy. You need a robust brand as a platform that allows you to go out to the market and sell competently.

Given your background, we’re interested in discussing the value and role of brands from a sales point of view. 

But let’s start with you – how did you get to where you are?


Mark: My first sales job was for a product provider, selling Life & Pension products to brokers, as they were called then. 

When I interviewed for the role, I had limited experience in sales. The recruitment firm had told me the role was selling general insurance products, so when the recruiting manager asked “What experience and knowledge do you have in selling Life & Pensions” I responded with “why is that relevant?” I quickly realised the recruitment firm’s error and added “I have no experience or knowledge in Life & Pensions but I possess massive energy and determination, and I’m told I have great rapport–building skills”. I followed up with “I am confident I have greater drive than anyone else in your whole building here.” Amazingly, I wasn’t shown the door. Instead he said “I have no idea why I’m about to do this, but I’m offering you the job as a trainee Life Inspector”. 

I remember finishing the interview, getting into the lift and just shouting “YES” and punching the air with excitement. 

 

I learned the skill of consultative selling, how to uncover and establish the clients’ genuine needs, how to add value to the clients’ business; how to ask relevant and engaging questions and how to listen. 

Then you joined Allied Dunbar – that must have been different again.

Yes, I was first approached by their local manager (who remains a great friend). I went up to London for a second interview and I thought the role was out of my league: plush offices, city types, whereas I’d grown up on a council estate and wasn’t sure I fitted in. However, they offered me the role. 

Thanks to a great manager and being surrounded by some genuine talent in the wider business, I survived the first couple of years and went on to become their top salesperson, and then one of their youngest ever sales managers. 

I often refer to my time in the Allied Dunbar Broker Division as my university education. The quality and quantum of training and development was market leading. I learned the skill of consultative selling, how to uncover and establish the clients’ genuine needs, how to add value to the clients’ business; how to ask relevant and engaging questions and how to listen. 

Most people thought excellence at Allied Dunbar was all about technical knowledge, but the bit that our competitors missed was the level of investment in skills development and the quality of the coaching that underpinned our culture. 



This is a good example of a company that has invested in sales. They’re hiring the best, and they’re making them better with training and mentoring. But what’s the brand like at this point?



The Broker Division was renowned for paying sales people very well. Our brand was unloved by many in the adviser world, for a variety of reasons. In some instances, we were selling into an established sector with a different product solution. The answer to this challenge was to hire the best salespeople and pay them well for success. We certainly had some great products, underpinned by excellent sales ideas, but our market share was relatively small and our brand remained difficult to sell. 

All that changed when we launched a new company and associated products, Sterling Assurance. At that point, the combination of a highly skilled sales team and excellent support functions all representing a fresh, modern looking and client–centric brand enabled us to gain a significant share in our chosen markets. 

 

So Allied Dunbar had to spend a fortune on sales because they had underinvested in the brand – this is exactly the kind of false economy I’ve been talking about. Ideally your brand is working for you and your sales can be much more strategic and supportive of the brand, rather than have an overpriced sales force basically running into the wind. 

But then you moved into asset management in your mid–thirties. What did you observe there about how interwoven brand and sales are?



In the new role in asset management, my boss asked me for three things in my first 100 days in charge. Assess the 28 people in my team, review and update our distribution strategy and finally, to look at our range of retail investment offerings and work out which ones we should focus on from a sales and marketing perspective. 

I remember being slightly daunted by that last task, but quickly established that of the 52 funds, there were five multi–asset lifestyle funds, which were an innovative and useful business solution for IFAs that were moving towards outsourcing this aspect of their business. Back then, that was a relatively new concept. Of the remaining 47 funds, there were maybe three or four with a strong story. The others were either poorly packaged and/or poorly performing. 


I met with lots of people from across the business, including many of the fund managers. I soon realised that the IFA sector had been of secondary importance to the business. Historically, the business was oriented towards winning institutional mandates and had built a brand commensurate with this sector. It made for a very traditional, somewhat stuffy and staid brand. It didn’t reflect the intermediary or the consumer space where there was significant change afoot in the value chain, and therefore opportunity.  



 

That experience taught me that the value of brand for salespeople is brand alignment. As an individual you need a brand that will fit well with the client base you’re trying to serve. You need brands and stories that are relevant to your audience. 



This is familiar territory – the market changes and the brand doesn’t, and now you’re 20 years out of date. 

Yes, and those behind the design and launch of the Lifestyle Funds are owed great respect for building a proposition which was innovative, IFA–oriented and offered the business solution we needed. So we built a strong story and service proposition around our best products.

That experience taught me that the value of brand for salespeople is brand alignment. As an individual you need a brand that will fit well with the client base you’re trying to serve. You need brands and stories that are relevant to your audience. 

 



It’s interesting that you use the word stories – that’s a point that we regularly raise with clients as part of the branding process. Stories are much more likely to make an emotional connection than a fact–based sales campaign. If you want a short–term boost, by all means hammer home some facts. If you want long term growth, build emotional connection.

Absolutely, and a few years later at Heartwood, thanks to an open–minded CEO and very supportive CIO, I was given the opportunity to start from scratch. With that proverbial “blank piece of paper”, I was able to build a proposition and shape our brand, anchored around a small number of core beliefs and values. This, together with clarity over our distribution strategy, created real momentum and was the backbone to our plan. 

I firmly believe you have to invest in all aspects: establish a clear, authentic and believable brand, a compelling and relevant proposition that creates demand, underpinned by a considered and informed distribution strategy – and then allow good salespeople to come in and take that story to market.

And if you’ve got a compelling story, it’s easier to recruit and train salespeople and get them up and running. What makes a compelling story?

The story has to be believable and credible to both the salesperson and your target audience. It has to resonate with the concerns and motivations of the audience. Do you understand what the audience wants? How does your product or solution enable that? Do your people understand and believe in the brand story and proposition? These are things I focused on and believe we did well at Heartwood. In conjunction with some awesome, early adopting clients, we quickly learned how to align ourselves with the IFA business owners, enabling them to achieve their objectives of improved profitability, a more consistent and informed investor experience and in turn, improved valuations of their businesses. 

The key for me is to have absolute belief and confidence in the authenticity of the brand and proposition. It never ceases to amaze me how many businesses spend time and money polishing their brochures and websites to say one thing and then, on first investigation, you find they are doing something completely different and in contradiction to their stated brand values. 

 

I firmly believe you have to invest in all aspects: establish a clear, authentic and believable brand, a compelling and relevant proposition that creates demand, underpinned by a considered and informed distribution strategy – and then allow good salespeople to come in and take that story to market.

The challenge is settling on a narrative that feels and sounds like Heartwood. What have you learned about finding a distinctive voice? Because I think the challenge of the IFA sector is that they all talk about performance. They all talk about lifestyle, but actually that doesn’t make them any different to one another. How do you create something distinct?

I think you’re right. The traditional approach for many IFA’s is to position themselves as the “expert in product” and put technical knowledge at the heart of their brand. 

Clearly, technical knowledge is critical and the profession has made enormous progress in this regard over the last 20 years. However, knowledge is a ‘hygiene factor’ and something the end consumer expects an advisor to have. 

I think (as evidenced by significant research) the really valuable and clever bit is helping clients articulate their goals, aspirations and concerns and bringing them life in the mind of the client – “what’s important to you? What’s your world really about? What does good look like for you, now and in the future?” 

This is where consultation, listening, and understanding the audience comes in. 

If we ask the consumer what they value most about IFAs, they don’t say “the cashflow modelling.” It’s about having someone they can trust. It’s about being able to open up about their plans and aspirations, and getting expert & appropriate advice to help them navigate towards and achieve their goals. 

If I were an IFA or Financial Planner, I would build a brand and proposition that is anchored around these beliefs and competencies. 

 

The first big question for me is ‘do your people understand the brand and its values and what it stands for?’ Have you got buy–in from the people who will actually go out and sell it? 

So to the CEO who says it’s all about sales and that branding comes later – what would you say?

I’d say that’s a naïve and short–term view. The balance is out of kilter. You can think of it as 70/30 or 80/20, but if you think it’s a hundred percent sales, then good salespeople are hard to find and retain. And no matter how good they are, the one thing that will help them to excel is real clarity before you take the brand to market. 

The first big question for me is ‘do your people understand the brand and its values and what it stands for?’ Have you got buy–in from the people who will actually go out and sell it? Investing the time to ensure you have internal buy–in is critical; only then will you excel externally as your team will live and breathe it in front of your prospective clients. 

 

It’s overused, but brand purpose is something that you hear a lot about. And that’s helpful, as an internal culture piece: it’s about making sure that the team buy into the ethos and the culture of the organisation, that they understand what the ultimate objective is and align with it. 

Completely agree. What are we about? Then get your distribution, marketing, everyone in the business behind it. Where are the gaps in how we present that to the market? What do we need to do in terms of our messaging, web presence, events, client engagement? It’s that sort of stuff that brings the brand to life, and that’s where we bring in the kind of expertise that you guys offer. 

I remember an exercise you did with us where you presented us with all these different versions of what people thought Heartwood was. And the question is “what do you want to stand for?” Don’t let others define it. And don’t go for some on the fence, middle of the road position. 

Stand for something. And then go and sell that.

 

 

This interview is part of a series that celebrates change–makers; those owners and senior leaders on who helped bring significant change to their organisations.

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