Lucy Kellaway: Wells Fargo’s wagonload of insincere regrets

US bank fires 5,300 for contravening ‘vision and values’ but fails to take responsibility

“If one employee offends against a bank’s vision and values, it is their fault. If 5,300 do, it is the bank’s.” (Photograph: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

“If one employee offends against a bank’s vision and values, it is their fault. If 5,300 do, it is the bank’s.” (Photograph: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

 

So far this month Wells Fargo has said sorry twice. One apology was for something huge. For years, its staff had been quietly setting up as many as two million fake customer accounts and credit cards. Now they’ve been rumbled: the bank has been fined $185 million and 5,300 people have been sacked.

The other apology was for something tiny. Wells Fargo had decreed that last Saturday was Teen Financial Education Day and, to celebrate it, the bank ran ads that said “A ballerina yesterday. An engineer today” and “An actor yesterday. A botanist today.”

The slogans were stupid, but you could see what they were driving at – the US economy needs more engineers than ballerinas. Yet dancers and actors kicked up a fuss on Twitter.

In response Wells Fargo did an about turn: “We offer our sincere apology for the initial ads . . . they were intended to celebrate all the aspirations of young people and fell short of that goal. We are making changes to the campaign’s creative that better reflect . . . our support of the arts.”

In other words, total capitulation.

Wells Fargo’s response in the other case was rather different. It took out full-page adverts in US newspapers, which ought to have offered plenty of room for grovelling. Instead the bank decided to use the space to tell cheated customers how marvellous it was.

Mission statement
It started by repeating the bank’s mission statement: “We want to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially.”

As missions go, this one is perfectly okay – if you ignore how hollow it sounds given what has just happened. But instead of explaining why things went so wrong, the bank blandly states that its mission is “as important to us today as it has ever been”.

It goes on to refer vaguely to “allegations that some of our retail customers received products and services they did not want”. This would be fine if it were a supermarket and had by mistake delivered a few extra packets of cereal to a few dozen customers, but doesn’t begin to cover the severity of what it has done.

The advert then says the bank “regrets” what has happened, takes “full responsibility” and has made “many improvements” as a result of it.

These include “redoubling communications and training for our team members to reinforce our commitment to doing the right thing for you, our customers” – which doesn’t give one much hope that things will improve.

If the existing training has failed so badly why would doing more of the same make things better?

The next “improvement” consists of “appropriate actions – including disciplinary – to address those who have served our customers in ways that were counter to our ‘Vision & Values’.”

In other words, lots of people have lost their jobs. But this doesn’t feel right either. If one employee offends against a bank’s vision and values, it is their fault. If 5,300 do, it is the bank’s. Wells Fargo has proved that its culture is a hopeless safeguard to anything. The people who have really transgressed are not the rank and file, but the top managers who set up the wrong incentives and who looked the other way as customers were stitched up.

Automated emails 
A further “improvement” is the feeblest of the lot: customers who open bank accounts or apply for credit cards will in future get automated emails.

In case anyone is not mollified at the prospect of more emails clogging up their inboxes, the advertisement concludes: “Wells Fargo’s journey began in 1852 and now includes more than 250,000 team members united in serving you, dedicated to your success and passionate about earning your ongoing confidence and trust.”

If I were an affected customer I would not care how long the “journey” had been going on. I’d want it to stop now. I’d also note that a quarter of a million people is far too many for a team. The best number is six.

But most importantly I’d be bridling at Wells Fargo’s cheek in telling me that they have always been “passionate” about my trust, when I’d just been taken for a ride.

More than that, I’d take note of this new way of escaping blame. Sack your foot soldiers, insist the bank (ie the senior management) is as fantastic as ever and shower your customers with words – as well as a bit more junk mail.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016