Wells Fargo arms branch workers with tablets instead of scripts

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(Bloomberg) -- How do you restore profits after a banking scandal that victimized both customers and employees -- without inflicting more pain on either side?

Mary Mack, head of Wells Fargo & Co.’s branch network, just spent the better part of her summer traveling the country and enacting a strategy she hopes will do just that. She has eliminated dozens of executive roles and closed 88 branches in the year’s first half, but managed to cut fewer than 10 front-line staff in the process. Aggressive sales quotas and scripts for pitching products also are out -- vestiges of a culture that caused too much trouble.

Instead, Mack is urging tellers to listen to customers, she said in a phone interview last week from a Hilton in Phoenix, where she spoke to employees from the region. She’s betting that addressing clients’ wants, often by guiding them to automated platforms, will ultimately bolster her division’s bottom line.

“We’re focused on what customers really need and what customers are really trying to solve for,” Mack said. If the bank can address those desires, “then that outcome is growth.”

It’s a softer approach than the hard-charging sales culture that for years fueled the San Francisco-based lender’s revenue. The company boosted annual profits in six of the eight years through 2016, when it admitted it opened bogus accounts -- possibly millions of them. The community banking division, which includes branch operations and other consumer businesses, has generated $981 million less profit over the last 12 months than it did a year earlier.

So far, efforts to rebuild public trust haven’t thrilled investors. Wells Fargo’s stock is down 6 percent this year, while the S&P 500 Financials Index has climbed 5.5 percent.

Dismissing Managers

The scandal was unusual in the damage it inflicted both on clients and personnel. Initially, Wells Fargo blamed low-level workers, saying it had fired more than 5,000 of them over five years as it sought to stamp out their abuses. That backfired as employees came forward, saying they feared being fired if they didn’t find ways to meet unrealistic quotas.

Wells Fargo eventually forced out the former head of the retail bank, Carrie Tolstedt, who was faulted in a board review for allowing abuses to persist for years. Early this year, the lender fired four other senior managers, including the head of its credit-cards unit.

Mack, 54, who took over the consumer division a few months before the scandal erupted last September, has been focusing on overhauling her division’s culture while also shaving costs with as little pain as possible.

She’s overseeing a plan to shut at least 450 branches, a move that will shrink the nation’s largest retail-bank network about 7 percent by the end of 2018. In the year’s first half, it reduced its footprint faster than both JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp.

In the interview, she was careful to call the branch closures “consolidations.” In many cases, customers and employees can be moved to nearby locations that remain open. That’s helping to limit dismissals, Mack said. Still, the workforce will shrink as managers leave some positions vacant when employees quit or get promoted.

Last month, she told staff she’s cutting about 70 senior executive jobs as she simplifies the organization. The people affected can try to find new roles at the company. But the reduction is also sending some into retirement.

Technology is another theme for Mack as she reshapes the branch network. She’s arming some workers with tablets and telling them to help customers download the bank’s mobile app. In the busiest branches, employees now direct customers awaiting a teller to instead use what the bank calls assisted-service ATMs, which can perform more-advanced tasks than common cash dispensers, such as giving change in $1 bills.

Mack also freed workers from her predecessors’ long-held mantra -- “Eight is Great” -- that encouraged employees to sell every customer household eight Wells Fargo products. The best way to impress managers, she said, is not by overselling, but by sussing out what customers are really after and delivering it -- fast.

“Folks have wanted change,” she said. “And when change comes, it’s a lot for our team members to absorb.”

--With assistance from Sarah Ponczek and Natasha Rausch

Bloomberg News