‘It wasn’t a sales culture …’

This article appeared in the October 13th in the Philadelphia Business Journal

By Jeff Blumenthal who covers banking, insurance and law.

In light of the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal, there has been much talk in the media and on Capitol Hill about a corrosive sales culture at the mega-bank, which just happens to be the largest deposit taker in the Philadelphia region.

Todd Cohen, an author and speaker on sales culture, says he grinds his teeth every time he hears the word “culture” as it pertains to the Wells Fargo scandal.

‘When you put a ton of pressure on your employees, bad things happen,’ says Todd Cohen.

‘When you put a ton of pressure on your employees, bad things happen,’ says Todd Cohen,… 

Annmarie Young Photography
Annmarie Young Photography

“It was not a sales culture,” Cohen said. “It was a culture of fear and intimidation, where employees were not trained or managed properly.”

Regulators fined Wells Fargo $185 million for creating unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts so employees could collect financial bonuses. The company wound up firing 5,300 employees, though none of them were senior management, after the fraudulent behavior was discovered to have taken place over the course of five years. The company has implemented a series of policies to make sure it does not happen again, most notably eliminating sales goals.

“It’s not a sales culture but a pressure culture,” Cohen said. “When you put a ton of pressure on your employees, bad things happen. You cannot say that your need to triple production or there will be consequences. That breeds dishonesty and fear. And it looks like that’s what Wells was doing.”

In a Washington Post article, one former Wells Fargo personal banker named Kristen Polito, recalled sales huddles, pressure tactics and Christmas Eve calls to cousins begging them to open accounts. “My colleagues and I were to sell, sell, sell accounts to people who really didn’t want them — blurring ethical lines along the way. I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice after realizing there are just two types of bankers: successful and unsuccessful.” Polito eventually left the bank, saying the tactics “turned me into a monster” and made her obsess about work.

Cohen said when he speaks about sales culture, he discusses a collective approach at a company. He surmises that a problem at Wells Fargo might have been that siloed superiors sent pressure down to branch employees — essentially putting things on the backs of people who were the least comfortable in that role.

“It shouldn’t be about stock price or executive pay but rather relationships,” Cohen said. “That’s why it’s important in sales to get to know someone and get invested in their business. You will sell more. It’s how you position people to do their jobs. I have had lots of friends at big banks in sales roles and they burned out because they did not have the tools to differentiate themselves.”

Jeff Blumenthal covers banking, insurance and law.


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