The Power of One: How Wells Fargo Builds Loyalty With Frontline Service


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Most so-called CRM case studies start with a discussion of business goals—such as growing sales, improving marketing effectiveness or reducing service cost. And then rapidly transition to a description of an IT project, while extolling the benefits of a CRM software solution.

Usually lost in the shuffle is the customers’ point of view. What’s in it for them to buy more? To be more loyal? To use more efficient channels?

We are all guided by self-interest, so for a change of pace, this article will give a perspective from just one customer. Read on for a story of why CustomerThink Corp.—the small business that owns and operates—is loyal to Wells Fargo Bank. And learn how one dedicated frontline employee can make a huge difference in building genuine loyalty.

In the beginning

Banking ranks right up there with going to the dentist, as far as I’m concerned. Necessary but not exactly fun.

When our family moved to Burlingame, California (about 20 miles south of San Francisco), 11 years ago, we opened a family account at a local Wells Fargo branch. The bank’s large ATM network was a factor in our decision. Mainly we wanted convenient, low-cost service, and that’s what we got.

Then in 1998 I founded a CRM consulting firm with one employee. Me. After a short fling with another bank that promised great small business service but didn’t deliver, I opened a business account at our Wells Fargo branch. During the next few years, I got the basic business banking services I needed. No muss, no fuss. Not much loyalty, but no real reason to switch banks, either.

But things started to change in January 2000, with the launch of Over the next two years, our business grew in revenue and staff, leading us to incorporate in 2003 as CustomerThink Corp. More money was coming in and going out each month. Our working capital requirements increased, so we signed up for a line of credit and kept more cash on hand to pay bills.

You get the picture: More business. More employees. More expenses. More complexity.

Today, we still value low cost and convenience. I use ATMs to make personal cash withdrawals, and Wells Fargo has a nice online banking system, where we can see all our business and personal accounts at a glance and transfer money with a few clicks of the mouse. Saves us time and Wells Fargo a costly trip to the branch office.

But our business banking needs are more complicated, and that’s where Wells Fargo’s personal service really started to shine.

The power of one

About a year and a half ago, Adam Lewis was hired by Wells Fargo to be a business banking specialist. But we think of him as our personal banker.

His prior experience included financial services “dialing and smiling” and commercial car sales. Adam said he was attracted to Wells Fargo because of the opportunity to build more in-depth client relationships. And because of its emphasis on continuing education and training and the opportunity for advancement.

An outgoing guy, Adam is always ready with a smile and a handshake whenever we visit the branch office. When I interviewed him for this article, he said his initial goal with clients was simply to build awareness of who he was and how he could help them.

I’m always suspicious of sales reps offering to “help” me, because their interest seems to wane if I’m not ready to buy something. With Adam, it’s different. He really does help.

Last year, when we urgently needed an Internet merchant account, Adam responded to my email request in 15 minutes flat and got a specialist to expedite a new account. When we had fraudulent activity, Adam acted quickly to limit our exposure and then followed up with good advice on how to restructure our accounts. Charges on our statement we don’t understand? Adam explains them or makes them disappear.

These are just a few examples of how Adam provides personal service directly or facilitates help with someone else at Wells Fargo. And you know what? When he does have a recommendation, we listen. See, he earned our trust by doing things that were in our best interest, not just the bank’s.

Where did he learn this? Adam says his background in commercial car sales taught him that overt selling often results in “clients putting up walls.” So Adam takes a service-oriented approach so that clients consider him to be the “value add.” Solutions and pricing offered by the major banks are all pretty much the same, Adam says, so the key to keeping clients is the service. For us, that’s certainly been the case.

“Doing It Right for the Customer”—slogan or culture?

Are you loyal to your telecom company? Odds are, you’re not. And one of the reasons is you can’t trust it to offer you the best deal. When was the last time your mobile phone company called to say, “Hey, did you know that you could save money with a different plan?” Exactly.

You build trust when you do something that is selfless—not in your immediate self-interest. Recently a Wells Fargo rep gave us unsolicited advice to shift some of our money into a different account to earn high interest. Another time, Adam advised us how to set up accounts to minimize fees.

Small gestures like these, friendly service by all the branch staff and a consultative approach by Adam all help build the feeling that Wells Fargo is looking out for our interests. I wasn’t shocked, therefore, to find that the bank’s stated intent was to build a customer-centric culture: “Doing It Right for the Customer” is No. 3 of 10 Strategic Initiatives, according the company’s
2004 annual report.

Doing right by customers apparently works for Adam, too. He is one of their top reps, measured by a composite of several measurements that includes new business, growth and profitability. I’m happy he’s successful, because we’re getting the service we need.

The bottom line

OK, we like Wells Fargo. So what? We’re just one small business served by a giant multi-line financial services firm. Our business wouldn’t show up as a rounding error on the financial statements of a company that earned $7 billion on $30 billion in revenue for 2004.

The thing is, large businesses are made up of thousands, even millions, of individual customers. Apparently Wells Fargo’s success is not limited to our business, because the bank claims to be the “No. 1 financial services provider to middle-market businesses in our territory” and “No. 1 small business lender.”

Is Wells Fargo the perfect bank? Far from it. We’d like to see less “nickling and diming” of small service fees. Maybe that’s how banks have racked up such impressive financial returns the past few years, but it’s annoying to have constantly monitor statements and challenge small fees.

Apparently we are a “high value” account, so the treatment we get is supposed to be excellent. But not all customers are as happy as we are.
In 2003, a Bristol Group and CRMGuru study of “customer relationship quality” ranked Wells Fargo behind HSBC, Bank of America and Royal Bank of Canada. More recently, the bank’s
American Customer Satisfaction Index ratings, although trending up in recent years, still lag behind those of other major U.S. banks.

Still, I think Wells Fargo is on the right path. From the point of view of this customer, the bank has done a good job translating its
customer-centric vision into its frontline operation, so we are motivated to keep and grow our business.

Key learning points

It would be a mistake to extrapolate this story into an endorsement of Wells Fargo’s overall CRM strategy. But I think there are a few important points to be gained from this story of one relationship.

  • Don’t forget the human touch. Streamline, yes. But don’t automate the soul out of your company. Hire and train frontline people who have a knack for building real relationships, especially with high-value customers.

  • Reward employees for customer-centric behavior. In business, you get what you manage and measure. Are you measuring the right things with your frontline employees?

  • One is not enough. Yes, you need people like Adam on the front line who will take ownership for customer relationships. But without strong systems, responsive staff and management support, that’s not enough.

  • Be nice to all your customers. You never know where your next high-value customer will come from!


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