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Financial Services

Avoiding Wells Fargo’s Reputational Crisis at Your Company

By Aneysha Pearce

The commonly-held sentiment that the more things change, the more they remain the same, certainly applies to some recent, high-profile and quite surprising leadership missteps we have seen play out publicly with Wells Fargo. The well-documented reputation crisis includes the termination of 5,300 lower-level bank employees who had opened over 2 million customer accounts to meet aggressive cross-sell targets set by Wells Fargo leadership. While such brand-tarnishing stories are not uncommon, it is truly perplexing to see them occur within a company placing high strategic importance on reputational efforts, and one that until recently had been the darling of Wall Street. In today’s social media spinning world, a breach of customer trust of this magnitude is all too easy and can rapidly compromise even the most highly regarded corporate reputations.

Not surprisingly, corporate reputation strength is based on the anchors of trust, admiration, respect, and the good feeling stakeholders have for a company. These drivers don’t change all that much, yet reputational performance does change—and quite dramatically— based on specific events and the relative alignment of the firm’s strategy, organizational model and talent.

The misalignment between management and staff can also be striking and may not be apparent until it is too late. For example, Wells Fargo’s now former CEO, John Stumpf, claimed that the bank’s situation was a result of “wrongful sales practice behavior” and that it “(went) against everything regarding our core principals, our ethics, and our culture.” But one only need to ask Stumpf’s front-line sales associates to hear a different story—one of a sales culture so intense that some workers (even in their San Francisco headquarters and branches) felt pressured into employing deceptive sales practices to make the lofty cross-sell goals. Such an atmosphere, said the associate, “Completely contradicts what (Stumpf) is saying.” The employee described a sales push called “Jump into January,” where associates were expected to sell 20 products a day. “We were all miserable, and it was soul-crushing to walk in every day,” said the associate. It seems obvious that the pressure to achieve such targets created an intense environment.  

What can other firms learn from the decline of Wells Fargo’s reputation? A useful way to answer that question holistically is through the lens of Axiom’s “Reputation Management Framework.” Our model begins with the end in mind and is based on years of experience leading this type of work for global clients in highly-regulated industries such as energy, healthcare, financial services and automotive, to name a few.
 
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The model is intuitive, with reputation heavily influenced by the importance of company performance measured against the following dimensions: innovation, products/services, citizenship, governance, workplace, leadership, and financial performance. 

Wells Fargo’s decision to put unrealistic pressure on its retail banking team had a cascading effect on the entire organization. To add some dimension to the gravity of the situation, we fielded a study with 500 U.S. general consumers about their perceptions of Wells Fargo’s (and nine other companies’) reputation given the events of late.
 
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From a reputational performance standpoint, Wells Fargo’s current reputation is at the “poor” level with a score of 58 (out of 100).  Compared to its retail banking peers, JP Morgan and Bank of America are in the “leading” to “average” range with scores of 76 and 70. respectively.  Further, key drivers of Wells Fargo’s reputation from the recent events are putting downward pressure on its overall reputation – with Leadership (49), Products and Services (55), and Corporate Citizenship (52) all either at or well below the “failing” performance threshold.

Recovering from this crisis will require more than a band-aid. It will take a reexamination of the entire organizational model including roles and accountabilities, decision authority, performance measures, work processes and information flows. We often recommend that companies take a step back and analyze their organizational model for reputational vulnerabilities and create an organization design to support behavior that builds reputation, not tears it down.

It will take time for Wells Fargo to unwind the damage done and, most recently, it appears to be taking the right steps to correct its actions—including leadership changes at the top, a new public campaign taking responsibility for wrong-doings, a roadshow to internally communicate the work to be done and, importantly, the realization that it is a long road ahead to rebuild trust with its customers AND employees.
 
Aneysha Pearce is a Partner at Axiom Consulting Partners, a strategy consulting firm focused on helping clients transform their businesses through a deep and thoughtful understanding of strategy, organization, and talent. Aneysha has over 20 years of experience supporting clients with their growth strategy efforts having partnered with many of the F500 clients in a wide-array of industries including energy, financial services, retail, consumer packaged goods, technology, and healthcare. Aneysha is a frequent media resource, commenting on business, brand, and reputation topics for publications such as Fortune, MediaPost, and 24/7 Wall Street, and has been interviewed by San Francisco KGO Radio.
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