Wells Fargo Scandal

A Lesson in Sales, Ethics, & Design


If you haven’t heard of the recent news regarding Wells Fargo, check out the interwebs or this link for a good summary. To make a long story short: Wells Fargo employees at some point opened credit card accounts without account holder approval. They did so to meet really crazy sales goals that were “pushed” upon them by Wells Fargo managers and executives. Wells Fargo has tried blame shifting tactics like this and employees have shifted the blame back to Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo fired thousands of employees after the incident became public. Wells Fargo and its CEO, John Stumpf, are still under heat as evidenced in this senate hearing, and it seems well-deserved as they have a history of cross-selling, leading to scandals like this one.

Wells Fargo Chairman and CEO John Stumpf at the 2015 Fortune Global Forum.

In this post I share my thoughts on sales, the normalcy of the Wells Fargo incident, the human frailty that leads individuals and organizations to start trending downhill ethically, and I conclude by sharing a different perspective on sales.

Sales is Not Always Bad

If you read my little summary above or searched the web you should now be just as informed as most of the public on the shady Wells Fargo sales scandal. So I won’t go into those details. Instead, I’ll start with what I think is a common understanding — sales people are necessary and critical to an organization’s success. A strong sales force is the financial and operational heartbeat of an organization. In other words, money has to be made, and it has to be made at increasingly higher profit margins over time. If not, the organization will go extinct quickly, regardless of its awesome ideas, products, and people. With that said, and as the saying goes, let’s be careful to not throw the baby out with the bath water. So repeat after me: “Sales doesn’t suck. I will not generalize sales from the shady experiences I have had with sales people”. Ok, good.

Humans are Not Always Good

The Wells Fargo incident should not be a surprise. This is typically what happens when you factor in human nature into anything. When you bring the ingenuity, passions, and awesomeness of humans into business, family, government, or whatever else, what you get is not just productivity and sheer awesomeness, you also get the other typical human flaws like deception, cheating, bias, manipulation, and much more. This is human nature. And especially when under external pressure, or internal selfish desires, humans have a predisposition to cutting corners and generally bringing out the worst of themselves.

So let’s not be quick to point fingers at Wells Fargo alone. They are the unlucky ones that got caught and hopefully they will serve as an example to others.

“..practical ethicality…modeled by management and executives and includes well defined and communicated incentive systems serving as motivations for people to behave ethically.”

Top-down View of Ethics

What I am saying is that I believe shady sales practices in general are unfortunately a norm because of the inherent nature of human beings. Some tell big lies, some tell small lies, but they are all lies. I also believe that organizations that actually live up to high ethical standards are rare — in sales and everything else. The code of ethics written in employee handbooks and on posters around the office are as dead as the medium they are written on. What I am talking about is practical ethicality that is modeled and embodied by management and executives. It includes well defined and communicated incentive systems serving as motivations for everyone else to behave ethically — from the CEO all the way down to the “lowest” ranked employee. And if we should pursue a holistic top-down approach then the people the CEO is accountable to (e.g. board members, share holders, etc.) should first model out ethical business practices for the CEO to even care about it and instill it in the organization.

If you have been in the corporate world for some time and gotten to see the balance and interactions between the sales side and the other sides of the organization, this Wells Fargo scandal will probably ring some type bell, loud or soft. Usually it’s hard to see the nuances of unethical behavior in selling or in doing anything else in that matter, as it’s wrapped up in cozy, awesome, marketing, and political language. Which reminds me of one one of my favorite quotes by novelist George Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Design as a Sales Strategy

I have come to learn and understand that a strong design strategy is one of the best and durable sales strategies an organization can have. Meaning, if you truly focus on building the experience in the digital, service, and operational threads of an organization, almost everything else follows, including increasing profit margins. This doesn’t mean you downplay sales, it means you compliment and supplement a sales force with a “design force”; and you start to tear down boundaries that exist in departmental silos inside your organization.

It also means you move from being a predominantly sales-minded to an equally product-minded organization. To do this, you allocate resources in a way that allows your organization to build out positive experiences and not just a bunch of fragmented products and services. You understand the people you are selling to and their needs or you generate/highlight a need (or want) they didn’t think they had, and then you invest time and money to craft and engineer a quality solution to meet that need. If you want to learn more about how exactly to become more design-centric and to deliver business value, start by consulting the interwebs or check out this easy read: Good UX is Good Business.

Snippet from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

The result of becoming more product-minded and allocating more resources in crafting the experience is an increase in quality, usefulness, and even the competitability of the solution. The solution begins to sell itself and no one gets manipulated or cheated into buying terribly designed experiences. And well-intentioned salespeople don’t get cornered into performing acrobatics in trying to retrofit a terribly designed solution into something they have to sell to someone who doesn’t need it or who wouldn’t buy it if they truly knew what they were buying. Unlike Wells Fargo, no one maliciously opens credit accounts without account holder approval and you save your business from the loss of trust and monetary investments to clean up messes that could have been avoided. Instead salespeople invest in communicating and selling quality and value in their actuality, and not only an appearance or illusion thereof — moving Sales from an “ABC” (Always Be Closing) to an “ABPV” (Always Be Providing Value) . Kudos if you’ve seen the Glengarry Glen Ross movie.

The End.

This piece of writing is part of a personal goal to write and publish at least 1 article a month for the rest of 2016, and going into 2017.

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