The Wells Fargo Culture Problem

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

photo by Gabriella Demczuk for the New York Times

The Wells Fargo Bank scandal of opening millions of secret accounts without customers’ permission is an issue of culture. 

Within the financial services industry, the retail business of Wells Fargo was always admired and in many ways was viewed as the gold standard because of their profitability. Much of that profitability had to do with retention of their clients and the income generated from the multiple accounts their customers had with the bank.  It’s a no-brainer, the more products and services you have with a bank, or for that matter, almost any company, correlates directly to more revenue.

Yes, what they did was not only wrong, but illegal. We’ll let the federal government and the mass of regulators and lawyers figure out what to do with that. The fundamental issue is that their pursuit of profits outweighs their values. And it’s how well a company lives up to its values that determines the culture. 

Doing what’s right for the customer, is a core value of Wells Fargo (as found in their Vision & Values brochure). Specifically stating, “One of our top priorities is protecting customers’ confidential data and information. Customers trust us to use that information to provide them with products and services that can save them time and money. They expect us to help guide them, help grow and protect their financial assets, and help them succeed financially. Our focus on customers is unwavering. That is how we have been doing business for more than 160 years and is the key to our future.”

When a company’s values, mission, or vision statement, are just words and not lived and followed, the result is what happened here. The brand is weakened. Do you remember Enron? They had awesome values. Unfortunately, they were also just words. Additionally, the entire banking industry will suffer a bit from the increased lack of trust many customers feel when they think of banks.

For a bank to be making money is not a bad thing. I hope they continue to do so and do it well. The ability to deposit a check from your phone, travel to another part of the world and get cash out of an ATM, and other services we may now take for granted are impressive. It also costs a lot to develop and support these services. However, customers are only willing to pay for them if they see the value and if they know the bank is watching out for them. Though – they have to make that decision, the bank cannot make it for them. 

What Wells Fargo forgot is that they do not define their brand nor do they determine who chooses to do business with them. A company’s brand is what their customers say it is. The brand is not only the products and services a company provides, but how well they actually live up to the standards they promote.