It’s Christmas Eve 2010 and the doors are locked, the tellers have closed their stations and the customers are gone. But I’m still at work with another Wachovia personal banker — my bank, a part of Wells Fargo — in our crappy branch-office cubicles calling friends and relatives, trying to persuade them to sign up for additional checking accounts.
Why? The branch is only open as a courtesy and, let’s face it, nobody has “open a deposit account” on their to-do list today, but I have a sales quota to meet regardless of what the calendar says. It’s the same as any other day, so I proceed as if my job depends upon it. Because it does.
I know you guys bank somewhere else, I begged my cousins over the phone as we made plans to see each other on Christmas Day, but I’m going to be a complete basket case until I can get some new accounts, trying to cajole them into signing up for accounts they didn’t need.
They wanted to know: How much is the monthly fee?
It’s totally free, I told them, adding, You don’t even have to use it. But more importantly, I say, Please just do this for me because you love me.
And, I think: So I can go home.
That’s what it was like to be a Wells Fargo personal banker. And that’s why news earlier this month that Wells will be fined $185 million by regulators as a result of employees opening accounts in customers’ names without authorization should surprise no one. It’s why Wells Fargo chief executive John Stumpf will be grilled by members of Congress on Thursday for the second time in two weeks.
Wells encouraged employees like me to “cross-sell” — offering a new products to existing customers who didn’t really want them — as a way to generate business without going out and finding new customers. Because big banks make money — putting you into IRAs, checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, etc. — by hanging onto yours.
During my time at Wells, my colleagues and I were pressured to sell, sell, sell accounts to people who really didn’t want them — blurring ethical lines along the way. I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice after realizing there are just two types of bankers: successful and unsuccessful. So I figured out the techniques my successful coworkers use and went for it.
Your checking account is made complete with a “complimentary” host of financial solutions such as a “free” savings account, Visa debit card, online banking, bill pay, mobile banking and a credit card application, I’d say, half-performing for my audience, half-multitasking, filling out the endlessly redundant forms trying to fulfill my quota of “solutions” per customer.
I sometimes skipped the part where we were supposed to assess customers’ actual financial needs, because that step was in mostly their interest. Not the bank’s. Or mine.
Everything was an “assumptive sale,” in which the customer was only given a chance to object to buying a product after they’d invested a good chunk of time with the personal banker (a.k.a. salesperson). We’d tell them what they’d be getting, but we’d never ask customers what they wanted. We’d place them in a position where they may feel uncomfortable saying no; they may think they are actually getting a great deal; they’re simply overwhelmed with too much information all at once; and they’ve sunk the cost of spending the afternoon with one of us, so they might as well just say yes. Talented bankers made it sound like they were doing the customers a favor. Nope.
I became a kick-ass salesperson, er, banker. I’m sort of ashamed to revel in it now, but if there’s one sentiment that I can’t help but still feel — even though I see how much damage it caused — it’s that I worked hard for those accounts. I’m a competitive person by nature, and I like measurable, tangible goals. I went from graduate school, where success is quantitatively measured, to Wells, where any triumph was also found by looking at the numbers. And while I now see how destructive those sales campaigns were, at the time the only measuring stick was signing customers up for more and more products, and that’s an instinct that dies hard. Some of it was my own hustle and drive, but a lot of it came from the top. We were told to do just about any and everything to sell accounts. Here’s how we did it:
Huddles were what they called team meetings for the entire branch. Sounds reasonable enough — every business has meetings for the purposes of disseminating information, boosting morale, etc. And the name “huddle” almost evokes a feeling of camaraderie — you know, a “Go team!” kind of session. But in reality, huddles were like public floggings.
The branch or service manager leading the huddle would start by asking all tellers and bankers the same question: What are you committing to today? How many sales, in other words, will you bring in by close of business? Then: How are you going to do this?, which really meant, I don’t care how you do it, just get it done before my 11 a.m. conference call with my boss. If you don’t have it done by 5 p.m., it’s going to be a “call night,” or working late night, for all the bankers. It’s like a scene in one of those movies where one football player breaks the rules, but the coach forces everyone to run a lap. Bottom line, huddles were a chance to be treated like a minor god, or publicly shamed.
As if long days, often six days a week, dealing with back-to-back impatient customers wasn’t enough, bankers would also have to stay late a couple of times a week to do some good, old-fashioned cold calling. And many of those nights were ones where we’d wind up opening checking accounts for friends and family just to go home early. A day might end at 7 p.m. with tired high-fives and pats on the back, but it would all be forgotten by the next morning. And for a lot of bank managers, that wasn’t enough.
My branch served local college campuses, and depending on the time of year, quite a few of the checking accounts we opened for students were either unfunded or destined to be mismanaged because they were student accounts. We’d open them anyway, even though we knew they’d have a negative balance within a month or two. We needed the new accounts stats to look good, so we’d simply worry about customer attrition rates later on. Since a lot of accounts were opened at the beginning of the school year, we told students that they would need to fund their new accounts as soon as their financial aid checks came in or the bank would eventually close the accounts as unfunded. After free student checking accounts were phased out, students began to incur fees on new, unfunded accounts and would soon find themselves in the negative faster than they could make an initial deposit.
In the right hands credit can be a good thing, but for some, it can mean financial ruin. The average American’s credit score is in the high 600s — not horrendous, but not stellar. Our clientele frequently didn’t have the credit scores to qualify for what we were selling, and credit simply wasn’t an appropriate product to suggest to someone like a college kid or single mom struggling to keep a positive balance in their account. But I’d do it anyway, because more credit applications, even the ones we rejected, showed effort on my part.
Believe me, I know all of this this is terrible. I thought about work, worried about work, obsessed about work 24/7. It turned me into a monster. It exacerbated my bipolar symptoms. It made me a horrible (now-ex) wife, daughter, sister, friend, human being.
Eventually, I left Wells for good. I had to.
I couldn’t agree more with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) telling Mr. Stumpf that forgoing $41 million in stock options as a penance for these practices is merely “a small step in the right direction.” She’s right that Wells Fargo employees’ lives “were turned upside down” trying to meet sales goals. The drive, from the top, to sell more and more banking products to the same group of banking customers was bad for consumers, the economy and, yes, bank employees. There was no incentive to provide good service, only more service. It eroded my sense of professionalism and the practice ruined public trust in an indispensable service — banking — one in which people place everything they have.
She’s right that Stumpf “should resign.” I’m definitely glad that I did.