First things first: Wells Fargo's unauthorized opening of accounts is an outrage.
John Stumpf's recent "retirement" as chief executive, his forfeiture of more than $40 million in compensation, the firing of more than 5,000 employees — all of it has been covered extensively, and there's surely more fallout to come. But the latest tale of wrongdoing tied to the financial services industry is the outcome of a well-intentioned, customer-centered strategy that went awry. After the finger-pointing and hand-wringing stop, it's customers who will suffer most.
Fearful of overreaching and anxious about intruding into customers' financial affairs, branch employees will seek refuge in the order-taker era of toaster giveaways. Customers' financial needs — whether to earn money, borrow money or save time — will go unmet.
It didn't have to be that way.
Wells Fargo's focus on selling has its roots in the old Norwest Bank, which acquired Wells Fargo in 1998 and took its name. At that time, Norwest had the finest and most successful relationship-based banking network in the country, developed and nurtured by its chief executive, Richard M. Kovacevich and his lieutenant, Anat Bird.
Throughout the 1990s, this dynamic pair established a new role for brick-and-mortar banks that were struggling to stay profitable as customers turned to electronic banking. They established ambitious goals that were backed by a robust sales training program. They equipped branch managers with the tools to coach employees and reward them for success: daily, weekly and monthly. Most important, they built a culture of sales and service throughout the company, achieving a proper — and ethical — balance of benefits among customers, employees and shareholders.
If a customer opens a checking account, their argument went, why shouldn't he or she have an auto loan and a savings account? And why shouldn't the employee share in the profits that go to the bank for the benefit of its shareholders? This sales-and-service model vaulted Norwest to the top of the charts as a retail bank and made it an attractive suitor for Wells Fargo.
During my years as head of community banking at First Indiana Bank, an independently owned bank in Indianapolis, I became acquainted with Anat. In the early '90s, we were looking for a way to compete against large superregional banks that were chipping away at our market share. The Norwest model was attractive to us; we had an underutilized branch network staffed with kind and personable employees eager to provide good service, but they were reluctant to take the initiative to sell relevant products and services.
With the help of outside consultants and a first-rate sales management staff, we adopted the Norwest system, and the results were phenomenal. Same-store checking accounts increased 26% in five years, in a flat-growth market. Our products-per-customer ratio grew at a similar clip.
Thinking back on those successful years and the celebrations we enjoyed as a branch team, I'm reminded above all else of the overarching principle of our approach, one that Anat always reminded us of: Never sell the customer one penny less or one penny more than they need. Ethics prevailed above all else.
Did we have goals? Of course. Did people leave because they didn't want to be part of the new sales culture? Yes. Did our branch system change? It did, in at least two ways. First, managers who preferred to spend most of their time on outside calls to real estate agents and consumer loan brokers moved into sales roles in our wholesale division. Second, we became more data driven than ever, with daily, weekly and monthly reviews (and recognition) of customer contacts and sales results. Did we fire people who falsified records? You bet, although I can recall only one instance of such dishonesty.
Apparently, Wells Fargo lost track of the most important reason people go to a bank in the first place: trust. Once that's gone, everything else falls apart.
Now the mea culpas begin. In October, national papers featured a full-page apology from Wells Fargo, including a statement that the branch staff no longer has sales goals. This is just plain sad. The link between sales and service — the principle that selling everyone what they need, and not one penny more — will disappear. Bank branches, already an endangered species, will become even less relevant. Customers will be less well served. Honest bankers will lose their jobs.
Marty Cohen, believed by many in the retail banking business to be the guru of sales training and sales culture, heralds "consultative, ethical selling is the highest form of service" as one of his principles. Wells Fargo forgot that. I'm no longer in the banking business, but I hope that my peers who still are will remember Marty Cohen and Anat Bird, and the principles they stand for.
Kenneth L. Turchi is assistant dean of finance and administration at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He was a senior vice president of First Indiana Bank in Indianapolis from 1994-2004.