Trust: I don’t think Wells Fargo gets it yet

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I attended an excellent conference today. The Carlson School of Management sponsored their second annual Ignite Conference, focused on “Protecting Trust in Today’s Consumer Journey.”

The opening speaker gave some great stats about trust, including research that 73% of the variance in how customers have trust with you is predicted by team members’ trust of the organization.

At the end of the day, Wells Fargo Chief Marketing Officer Jamie Moldafsky spoke on their journey to regain trust. It was a well-crafted speech, showcasing all that Wells Fargo was doing to admit wrong-doing and earn back the trust earned over 150+ years in business.

All in all, it was impressive. But two warning signs has me concerned they have further to go than they think.

The first warning came as she introduced the talk. To inject some humor, she began by asking, “By a show of hands, who knows what happened to use two years ago.”

Every hand shot up, of course, and we all had a good laugh.

But I was shocked by the words she used. As an experienced marketer, she knows that language matters. “What happened to us.” As if the creation of millions of fake accounts and improperly billing consumers hundreds of millions of dollars was an external event, thrust upon the company. Something outside of their control.

While she promised that they’re taking responsibility for their actions, the phrase left me wondering.

My uncertainty continued as she discussed the root cause of the problems: the KPIs that led bankers to create fake accounts.

Those darn KPIs.

Yes, bad KPIs can lead to bad behavior. Just try getting service on your car, and you’ll see it. But KPIs on revenue per client or number of products per customer aren’t exactly outliers. Many successful companies use similar KPIs without defrauding millions of customers. The difference is the management culture, which pushed for unrealistic numbers and promoted the people who defrauded customers while punishing those who played by the rules.

By focusing on the “metrics are bad” message, Wells Fargo misses the point. Yes, they fired thousands of people, but the likelihood that they got rid of all the bad apples is unlikely, especially since new scandals keep popping up. While Moldafsky did reference culture challenges, she didn’t go into much detail, and seemed to argue that the culture problem was fixed.

I’m not convinced.

As Peter Drucker reportedly said, “Culture eats strategy for lunch. Unless Wells Fargo goes deep into understanding its leadership and cultural issues, I’m concerned that the announcements aren’t going to end anytime soon.

And that will make it even harder for the 150+ year old company to protect trust in today’s consumer journey.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Jim, there are many people out there who would also be put off by such a blasé attitude from any company – much less Wells Fargo. Indeed, trust is something very difficult to regain and if a company thinks that sugar coating their mistakes will make everything shiny and new, they certainly don’t see that they still have problems.
    Trust in a company comes from years of showing customers the best they have to offer – in good times and bad. As many companies have learned, some of their best ideas for change come from their customer base and if managers can’t see that, then they truly are missing opportunities and are out of touch with not only their customers, but with their employees as well. After all, trust should start at the top…that way, it flows down and inserts itself into the whole company culture. “Trust us” shouldn’t just be words mouthed to regain customers – ‘trust’ should be a whole culture unto itself. When employees trust each other, then that trust will be seen by the public at large and then you’ll have something to really be proud of again!

  2. Your excellent blog affirms what most of our mothers told us as children: actions speak louder than words. The subtle but still unmistakable attitude of we, at Wells Fargo, are the victims of some external forces (those bad, evil KPI’s got us) telegraphs volumes about a lack of humility and a failure to recognize they lost their integrity. Tom Peters wrote: “There is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity.” Where is the part about:

    “Our core values were insufficient to prevent too many of our employees from lying and cheating. Our leaders lacked the bravery to set a solid example by standing up for doing the right thing. We let greed and win-at-all-cost trump actions and practices we would want our children to emulate. We valued arrogance and winning over caring for our customers by being good stewards of their financial well-being. We failed as their trusted partners.”

    Your sad story tells us they still have far to go.

  3. Agree with your perspectives. Trust has both internal components (employees, for processes and management) and external components (customers, and how they perceive and use the institution). If internal and external KPIs are not sensitive enough to identify when trust is deficient, then they are the wrong, and bad, KPIs. This, as you note, isn’t so much the fault of the KPIs as it is the decisions of the organization, and the culture, applying them,

  4. Excellent article. It leaves me baffled as to how something so fundamental could be violated. From the looks of it, I don’t think they have learned their lessons. As with Digital Equipment Corporation in the 90s, I wonder if senior leaders lacked a basic understanding of the company’s operations.

  5. Removed from the context of Ms. Moldafsky’s presentation, it’s hard to know whether her question was intended to impart that the company somehow fell victim to causes outside of its control. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume not. Wells Fargo’s culpability is widely known, and it seems lunatic to suggest otherwise, especially given the audience she was addressing at the time.

    I agree that the company’s culture is toxic, worsened by the misalignment between what investors perceive as value producing (accounts per customer) and how senior managers were – and probably still are – financially rewarded. For that, I blame Wells Fargo’s board of directors, which should have recognized the risks staring them in the face. Instead, they turned a blind eye. When incentives and bonuses are not synchronous with positive outcomes for employees, customers, and investors, nothing can ‘detoxify’ the culture – mot even contrite ad campaigns and tinny customer-centric rhetoric.

  6. On thinking this through further: if WF is sincere that they have abandoned their damaging practices company-wide, they must be transparent about how management is compensated and incentivized, as that was at the root of their downfall under John Stumpf – and probably before him. This needs to be done throughout the WF organization, including retail banking, wealth management, mortgage lending, and foreign exchange. Post-Stumpf, all have been implicated for impropriety, which suggests that misguided pay incentives continue to infect their culture.

  7. Scary post, Jim, but very symbolic of unethical business attitudes in today’s world. If I may, I’d like to share some thoughts of a similar – more deadly – event in South Africa. A food company, Enterprise, part of a larger group called Tiger Brands, experienced a problem with an outbreak of a deadly listeria bacterial infection in their cold meat products such as sausages and polonies. As far as we can ascertain in news reports, at least 190 vulnerable people (i.e. children and older people,) have died directly as a result of this outbreak.

    The root cause seems to be that while the meat products were uncontaminated inside the casings, once they had been sterilised in a pressure chamber, they were dunked into a bath of cold water that was re-used over and over again. As customers sliced through the packaging and casings, the listeria bacteria entered into the meat and contaminated it. The company allegedly knew about this around a year previously, but no real action had been taken. When the CEO of the holding company, Tiger Brands, was interviewed on national television, his response was completely inadequate, and it was obvious he had been given really strict advice by lawyers and PR “professionals”; he spent 30 minutes back-pedalling, making vague statements, ducking and diving. He repeated over and over again that it had not been proven beyond doubt that he company was at fault, but the products were immediately withdrawn from grocery stores all over southern Africa, and the factories were closed down by the Minister of Health.

    What was telling was that he only time the CEO became animated and seemed comfortable in the media conference was when a reporter asked what would be the financial impact on their company. To this day, months later, there has been no apology, and, similar to Wells Fargo, the executive team seems to be in denial. They have nevertheless put aside around $13.5m (US) for payouts to victims’ families, in order to make this thing go away before a very public trial. Quietly and without fanfare, they have also blamed their customers, particularly customers who bought these in large quantities to feed workers, mothers and children in food carts at busy intersections and public transport hubs. They are trying to get the message across that it is because of unhygienic practices by these vendors that the problem occurred.

    The sad fact of the matter is that this problem will go away, even though their sales this year were severely affected. They have already changed the name and re-branded a sister company from “Rainbow Chickens” to “Farmer Brown,” and there is no doubt that when Enterprise begins trading again, a similar exercise will occur. In my opinion, this, the Wells Fargo incident, and countless other scandals, are obscene, and there must be serious consequences rather than a slap on the wrist. I despair about the world my children will inherit from our greedy generation.

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