Relentless sales pressure at Wells Fargo comes at a cost, investigation finds

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Posted: Friday, December 27, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 1:54 pm, Thu Oct 9, 2014.

Wells Fargo branch manager Rita Murillo came to dread the phone calls.

Regional bosses required hourly conferences on her Florida branch's progress toward daily quotas for opening accounts and selling customers extras such as overdraft protection. Employees who lagged behind had to stay late and work weekends, Murillo said.

Then came the threats: Anyone falling short after two months would be fired.

“We were constantly told we would end up working for McDonald's,” said Murillo, who later resigned. “If we did not make the sales quotas, we had to stay for what felt like after-school detention, or report to a call session on Saturdays.”

Wells Fargo & Co. is the nation's leader in selling add-on services to its customers. The giant San Francisco bank brags in earnings reports of its prowess in “cross-selling” financial products such as checking and savings accounts, credit cards, mortgages and wealth management. In addition to generating fees and profits, those services keep customers tied to the bank and less likely to jump to competitors.

But that success has come at a cost. The relentless pressure to sell has battered employee morale and led to ethical breaches, customer complaints and labor lawsuits, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found.

To meet quotas, employees have opened unneeded accounts for customers, ordered credit cards without customers' permission and forged client signatures on paperwork. Some employees begged family members to open ghost accounts.

These conclusions emerge from a review of internal bank documents and court records, and from interviews with 28 former and seven current Wells Fargo employees who worked at bank branches in nine states.

Erick Estrada, a former Wells Fargo personal banker and business specialist at a Los Angeles branch, said managers there coached workers on how to inflate sales numbers.

Employees opened duplicate accounts, sometimes without customers' knowledge, he said. Workers also used a bank database to identify customers who had been pre-approved for credit cards — then ordered the plastic without asking them, Estrada said.

He admitted to opening unneeded accounts, though never without a customer's knowledge, he said.

When customers complained about the unwanted credit cards, the branch manager would blame a computer glitch or say the card had been requested by someone with a similar name, Estrada said.

One former branch manager who worked in the Pacific Northwest described her dismay at discovering that employees had talked a homeless woman into opening six checking and savings accounts with fees totaling $39 a month.

“It's all manipulation. We are taught exactly how to sell multiple accounts,” the former manager said. “It sounds good, but in reality it doesn't benefit most customers.”

Like many other workers interviewed by the Times, she requested anonymity, citing a fear of retribution from Wells Fargo or difficulty finding employment at other financial institutions.

The former manager said she helped the homeless woman close all but one account, which was needed for direct deposit of her Social Security disability benefits. .

Wells Fargo officials said they make ethical conduct a priority and punish or fire employees who don't serve customers properly. They acknowledged the bank's strong focus on selling but said it is intended to benefit customers by identifying their needs.

“I'm not aware of any overbearing sales culture,” Chief Financial Officer Timothy Sloan said.

The company recently fired about 30 Southern California workers, including Estrada — employees the bank said cheated to hit their sales goals. Employees said other workers in the region were put on administrative leave or let go; the company declined to comment on any additional actions.

Wells Fargo spokesman Oscar Suris said the bank has security procedures to root out employees who violate laws or bank ethics policy.

The bank said this month that it is creating an Ethics Program Office to review standards for employees and handling of conflicts of interest.

The pressure to meet goals starts with supervisors, Wells Fargo staffers said. Branch managers in California have filed five related lawsuits alleging that the bank failed to pay them overtime. The extra hours were spent laboring to meet sales targets, said plaintiffs' attorney John J. Glugoski of San Francisco.

By some measures, Wells Fargo is the nation's biggest retail bank, with more than 6,300 offices and a market valuation of $237 billion.

In reporting a record $5.6 billion quarterly profit in October, Wells Fargo said it averages 6.15 financial products per household — nearly four times the industry average.

Wells Fargo “is the master at this,” said Michael Moebs, an independent bank consultant in Lake Bluff, Ill. “No other bank can touch them.”

Meeting those account quotas falls mainly to branch employees.

In February, Becky Grimes, 57, quit Wells Fargo after 14 years as a branch manager in Victoria, Texas. She said employees were expected to force “unneeded and unwanted” products on customers to satisfy sales targets.

“I could no longer do these unethical practices nor coach my team to do them either,” Grimes said.

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