NEW YORK — It began with the constant and compulsive pressure to sell. Then came stress-induced health problems. Wells Fargo employees, both current and former, say they spent every day frantically trying to persuade customers to open more accounts — not for any bonuses, but simply to keep their jobs.
Even in an industry known for performance demands, the sales goals were unprecedented. Employees described a near-obsessive focus from managers on a daily — or even hourly — basis about whether they were meeting the targets. The selling pressure was even put on tellers at the lowest employment levels of the bank, employees said.
It’s no surprise that Wells executives called each location a “store” rather than a bank branch.
“Every single day the first question out of my manager was, how many appointments did I have today? How am I going to meet my goals?” said Mikey McGinn, who worked for Wells Fargo as a teller and a banker from 2007 until July of this year.
Wells Fargo’s operations are under scrutiny since it agreed to pay $185 million to federal and local authorities to settle allegations that bankers striving to meet the targets opened credit card and bank accounts, moved money between them and even created fake email addresses to sign people up for online banking — all without customer authorization. The news has reignited outrage in an American public and their representatives, still angry over the Wall Street scandals that spurred the recession. And this scandal doesn’t involve complicated financial products, but people’s regular checking and savings accounts and employees at the local branch.
Employees at the bank known for its stagecoach logo say the immense pressure to sell, coming directly from top executives, spurred them to push products customers did not need nor want. Many are angry that Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, castigated Tuesday by the Senate Banking Committee, has put the blame on retail bank employees and that more than 5,300 employees have been fired since the bank started investigating.
“We had to meet sales goals every day or I could get written up,” said Khalid Taha, who worked at a Wells Fargo branch in San Diego from 2013 until July 2016. Taha said he was one of the few in his branch who met his quotas, but called doing so “a miracle.” Taha says he never did anything unethical or illegal at the bank.
While it varied by branch size and day of the week, a typical employee had to sell between 13 and 15 banking products a day — a new account, a mortgage, a retirement account, or even online banking.
The targets were high even in small towns. Bankers in St. Helena, California, were ordered to open 3,000 checking accounts and sell 12,000 other bank products a year, according to a lawsuit filed against the bank in 2011. St. Helena and the surrounding towns in the picturesque Napa Valley wine country had a total population of roughly 11,500 people.
At least three employees described a tactic known as the “mid-session review” in which Wells Fargo bankers sitting down with customers would excuse themselves in order to meet with managers, who were supposed to review the customers’ files and figure out what additional products the employees should sell them on top of the business they came to take care of. Another practice called “stagecoaching,” had Wells Fargo bankers stationed behind tellers while customers came in for routine transactions, looking for opportunities to sell.
“I dread it every day. They are in the branch for a debit card, but that’s not good enough. You have come out of left field and say, ‘Hey, how’s your credit? Let’s sign you up for a secured credit card,” said one Wells Fargo personal banker from a small town in Southern California, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person still works for the company and fears retribution.
Faced with the unrealistic sales expectations and close tracking of their sales by managers, employees looked for ways to manipulate Wells’ sales system. Bankers in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and elsewhere described a sales culture where cheating the system was par the course.
Julie Miller was a Wells Fargo branch manager until 2013, and had worked in the banking industry for Wells Fargo and Wachovia for 20 years. She also says she never did anything illegal while at Wells, but said there were ways to game the system.
One tactic her employees would use would be closing accounts and then reopening them, a practice known in the banking industry as “churning” accounts. Under the guise of giving a customer overdraft protection, bankers would open credit card and savings accounts for them, knowing the savings account would never be funded to a level that would actually provide protection, Miller said.
“Most of the people we were opening accounts in our stores who needed the overdraft didn’t have the funds to actually get overdraft protection from it,” she said.
Several bankers said the pressure took a toll on their health. McGinn, who worked for Wells Fargo in Minnesota, said she gained weight from the stress. A banker in California said she developed a tic in her eye. Both said they also developed sleep issues related to their jobs.
Some employees did raise concerns about the aggressive sales practices. In New Jersey, one branch manager emailed Stumpf’s office in February 2011, expressing concern that employees had been moving money from one new account to another for months simply to “fool” Wells Fargo’s sales system.
Wells Fargo, asked for a response to the bankers’ stories, forwarded an email that Stumpf sent to all bank employees this week. It said Wells Fargo was committed to having a “supportive, caring, and ethical environment for team members.”
“We regret and take full responsibility for the incidents in which customers received a product they did not request, as that is inconsistent with the values and culture we strive to live up to every day,” Stumpf said in the email.
The bank has said it will be ending its sales quota system at the end of the year. It also plans to reach out to all customers going back to 2009 to verify whether the accounts were authorized.
During the aggressive questioning on Capitol Hill this week, Stumpf apologized to the Senate Banking Committee, as well as the American public. “We recognize now that we should have done more sooner,” he acknowledged. “I am deeply sorry that we have not lived up to our values in this way.” He promised: “I will make it right.” He did not offer details.
Ken Sweet covers banking and consumer financial affairs for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.
If you are or were a Wells Fargo employee and want to talk about the bank’s sales practices, or a consumer affected by Wells Fargo or other bank sales practices, please email at email@example.com.