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Shifts in Momentum: Keys to Mortgage Team-Building

Editor's note: This feature appeared in the August print issue of DS News magazine, available here. 

With unemployment hovering around 6% for a few months and the mortgage servicing sector working to ensure it has sufficient staff to deal with the volumes of struggling homeowners coming out of forbearance, the industry could be a new home for workers looking for the next career step.  

The servicers DS News spoke with say while some jobs are hard to fill, maintaining a good reputation, actively engaging with employees, and working to innovate are keys that will help the industry attract the right people with the skills they want while also retaining their best workers in the long term. 

“Across the board in the mortgage industry, whether it's servicing or origination, you have to cast a big net—primarily due to the influx of a volume that came in last year,” said Greer Allgood, Managing Director of Mortgage Operations at Wipro Opus. 

The COVID-19 pandemic meant many servicers were busier than ever as people took advantage of historically low interest rates to refinance their loans, so many have had to cast a wide net to fill the available roles. 

“Even though rates have ticked up a little bit, we're still seeing a high demand for a lot of the mortgage resources,” said Balenda Hetzel, Regional Production Manager for Inlanta Mortgage, adding that the move to remote work and hiring has helped fill the gap. “We are getting more candidates now than we would have had with a smaller posting or a smaller listing. We have the technology to support someone in Seattle or anywhere in the United States. I do feel like we are getting such a cool pool of people in that we didn't have the opportunity to have years ago.” 

Mary Pat Cummings, Senior Manager of Talent Acquisition, Sourcepoint, echoed that observation, noting that the company now considers job candidates it might not have only a few years ago.   

A Certain Set of Skills 

Servicers are looking for a combination of personal characteristics and skills when hiring. 

“We hire talented mortgage people who are making a difference in people's lives,” said Eric Torigian, Chief Human Resources Officer at SitusAMC. “We focus on going and finding the best candidates who we can turn into highly engaged employees.” 

“You have to be creative; you have to be energetic; you have to have that ambition to go the extra mile,” added Michael Kittyle, CIO and EVP of Technology for BSI Financial Services. 

So-called “people skills” are first and foremost, said Hetzel, a sentiment that many other industry executives shared. 

“When I first entered the industry, my mentor told me, ‘I can teach you anything in a book, but I can’t teach you about people,” Hetzel said. “You can pluck a waitress out of a restaurant with great people skills and train her to be one of the top performers in the mortgage industry. You can’t teach people the skills to be a good person, concentrate on the borrower, and things like that. You have to find someone who is good with people. Then you have a raw piece of artwork you can turn into a masterpiece.” 

Closely related to people skills are communication skills, which several experts cited. 

“We want people who can easily articulate themselves and have some defined career goals coming in,” Allgood said. “They should be looking at this as a career move and not just as a job. They have to be clear and concise on what they want to do and where they want to go. That builds enthusiasm.” 

Though employees will usually be part of teams, they need to have an entrepreneurial spirit as well, Cummings said. “We look for people who are motivated and run their desk like it's their own business. We want people who can work independently. We want to hire people who have that success mentality.” 

Computer skills are essential as well. Regardless of the position, an employee will need to have knowledge of basic Microsoft programs, and other computer basics so IT doesn’t need to get involved in minor technical issues. Those skills became even more important during the pandemic because IT wasn’t as readily available as it was in an office setting, Cummings said. 

“We do a lot of video interviews now,” Cummings added. “If they're not navigating that well in the interview, they're probably not going to be very successful doing an eight-hour training online.” 

Drivers of Success 

Attracting and hiring the right people with the right skills is only part of the equation when it comes to building a successful organization. Servicers need to go further to help move performance from average to above-average, and from above-average to excellent.  

For SitusAMC, that process starts before the employee clocks in on his or her first day, according to Torigian. “I have a whole process. Once someone signs an offer letter, they are no longer a candidate, but they are still three weeks away from Day One.” 

The company sets in motion several processes to enable the employee to hit the ground running. Emails, calendars, etc. are active immediately upon hire. The next day, the new hire has an assignment book, study materials, and a schedule of meetings to become acclimated to the organization, specific team, etc.  

The welcome team sets up a 15-minute conversation with an HR coordinator, who walks the new employee through a survey that covers the recruiting process. The feedback helps the company fine-tune its process. HR will also ask for references from the new employee to help expand its recruitment pool. A few days later, the new hire receives an email from the HR business partner overseeing the new hire’s department (i.e., residential real estate), explaining the onboarding process, and introducing the team. There might be a follow-up meeting at a coffee shop to help the new hire feel part of the team before his or her first day of work. There will be additional one-one-one meetings on the first day.  

Follow-ups will occur at the end of the first week, month, quarter and year. 

Cherry Creek Mortgage employs a “culture index” that has served as a good predictor of success, said Katy Uhl, Chief Human Resources Officer. Cherry Creek’s culture index helps the lender see pre-defined attributes about people to helps them to better understand them, as well as fit them to the correct role and responsibilities. Cherry Creek sends its culture index out to all prospective new hires prior to their employment so they can learn more about their inner workings, how they respond to situations, how they think, their personality, etc.   

Sourcepoint has new hires work with a learning and development team for up to five weeks, as well as including daily huddles to ensure that employees are engaged.  

Default Servicing Skills 

Those working in the collections area of the default servicing business will be working with customers who could be in one of the most difficult situations of their lives, Torigian said. They may have lost income due to the pandemic, job loss, or another issue, making the current payments unaffordable. Though COVID-related moratoria may have given some of those customers some temporary relief, the collections/resolutions are likely to restart soon.  

Employees in the customer-facing area of that portion of the business need to have empathy to be successful, Torigian added. “What we're really looking for in our employees is this sense of the customer, and how do you take care of the customer in a distress situation. What I want is people who can engage, help calm situations, help bring the facts in help people make good decisions, and help them through these bad situations. Not [every borrower] is going to have a good outcome, but we can help people be in the best situation possible as that goes on.” 

“We look for people who have that ability to, to navigate those difficult waters, because you've got a client or a borrower that's in distress; they're scared,” Kittyle added. “You need someone that has the ability to be empathetic, to understand the solutions that we have available for them, and to be able to communicate that accurately.” 

Becoming an Employer of Choice 

With servicers competing for the best talent, they are taking steps to present their firms as a better workplace option than the competition. 

Cherry Creek Mortgage has an excellent reputation in the industry, which helps make it an employer of choice, said Uhl, a sentiment several others shared about their own firms. Uhl added that relationships built through trade shows and other industry events over the last several years have helped draw talent to the company. 

“We look at: How do we make Situs AMC a relevant name? And how do we make it a relevant employer?” Torigian said. “The first thing we have to do is we have to transition from this model of exchanging transitional transactional work for money. Traditionally, these are very commoditized roles.” 

SitusAMC has taken several steps to break that mold, according to Torigian: “Being an underwriter at SitusAMC is not like being an underwriter anywhere else. We have this strong humanitarian plank. We’re doing things like providing people with a global living wage and simplifying our PTO to make an impact on people’s lives. We're doing things like remote work and hybrid work and converting the work-life life balance conversation into work-life integration.” 

SitusAMC offers its employees career maps so employees skilled in one area can add additional skills to be able to move within the company, Torigian added. “You’re going to develop and you’re going to grow as well. Beyond that, we focus on how we reward people. It’s more than just a paycheck. “We’ve simplified our PTO to make it a lot easier for new hires to get that time.” 

“There's not there's not a bigger compliment to an employee or employer than when your employees themselves are helping you recruit,” Allgood said.  “It starts with working in your own backyard, making sure your resources are valued making sure they're, they're part of a broader team, that they appreciate the values in the in the culture.” 

Allgood recommended including seasoned staff in the interview process. Applicants will sense from the core staff whether the organization is right for them. 

Several experts cited work-life integration, which became much more important during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, as more people from all industries started working from home. 

“People spent more time at home, and they liked it—they realized some of the things are missed,” Torigian said. Now, rather than requiring some employees to work specific hours, he looks for deliverables, like a certain number of loans processed in a certain number of days, regardless of when during the work is completed during that period.  

Staff Retention 

By using motivation, innovation, and the maintenance of a certain culture, a servicer can retain its best team members.  

“We have staff longevity because we have such an awesome dynamic of people, and it's a family culture,” Hetzel said. “It's just an amazing group of people that can do attitude. We're all one team, all on the same path. It’s not just to get the loan through; I’ve had that where I’ve worked before. I think when people come in, they feel the culture, and we have the programs in place to make it easy so that they can focus on the client and their referral partners.” 

It’s also important that employees see they have there is potential for upward mobility in the organization, Allgood said, recommending that as “stars” begin to emerge within the organization, executives start bringing them into some management discussions, so these top employees feel they have a place at the table. 

Allgood pointed out that several surveys have shown that one of the biggest complaints employees have about companies is that they are not being heard. Eliminating that issue helps keep employees happy, helping retention. 

“This really instills teamwork,” Allgood said, adding that executive also benefits by getting a view from those who have been “in the trenches.” They will have insight on whether a new technology or strategy is likely to be beneficial and are likely to be the biggest cheerleaders of changes they perceive to be positive, helping to drive adoption among their peers.  

According to a Zenbenefits research report, 63.3% of companies find retaining employees is harder than hiring them. Sixty-nine percent of employees said in the survey that they would work harder if they were better appreciated. 

“When employees feel engaged, they care about the company and do their best work to achieve the company’s goals” Hetzel said. “Employee engagement is not about employee benefits or bonuses; it’s about being part of a successful business.” 

Gamification—with dashboards that enable workers to see how they are performing among their peers—and recognizing leaders (though not in a cutthroat way) also helps motivate staff, according Kittyle, who is just starting to initiate gamification strategies.  

Hetzel and Torigian added that engaging employees in non-work activities is also beneficial in building camaraderie and retention. 

Inlanta Mortgage held non-work-related contests, occasionally sent pizzas or other foods to remote workers’ homes along with thank-you notes, made regular phone calls and had online chats with staff, and took other efforts to engage employees. 

SitusAMC created different affinity groups, for example bringing together employees who had a passion for cooking. The company also offered mini-learning sessions to teach employees new skills to improve their upward mobility, such as how to engage someone on a Zoom call or how to effectively use email.  

BSI Financial offered employees a combination of branch barbecues, quarterly fun dates, and nights out, as well as birthday and anniversary recognitions pre-pandemic and similar virtual events during the pandemic. The company is also taking a more focused approach to helping employees deal with stress and other mental health issues, Kittyle said. 

Prepping for the Future 

Servicing volumes are high right now, but the business is nothing if not cyclical. Inevitably, the pendulum will eventually swing to the point where business is declining, leaving servicers with excess staff. How should the industry prepare for that? 

“The tendency is to grow as quickly as possible and expand the resources as much as possible,” Allgood said. “Management needs to be responsible [for ensuring] that the organization that you're building is sustainable. We don’t want a mass layoff suddenly.” 

When possible, any reduction in staff should be handled through attrition, Allgood explained. Attrition occurs naturally even with the best of organizations as employees retire, go to another employer, or strike out on their own. There will also be people who stay but move vertically or horizontally within the organization. 

The balance between staff additions and attrition to match volume swings won’t be perfect, so a sustainable organization should understand some type of median level of staff, and use overtime incentives to help with volume overflows, according to Allgood. 

“Though you have to address the [current] volume, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure in the future,” Allgood said. “You have to understand what your attrition you will be and how you can wind down your staff.” 

About Author: Phil Britt

Phil Britt started covering mortgages and other financial services matters for a suburban Chicago newspaper in the mid-1980s before joining Savings Institutions magazine in 1992. When the publication moved its offices to Washington, D.C., in 1993, he started his own editorial services room and continued to cover mortgages, other financial services subjects, and technology for a variety of websites and publications.
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