Less than a decade ago, abuses by big banks triggered the Great Recession. Policymakers addressed some of those practices, but executives in the banking industry forged ahead and found new ways to replace lost revenues — namely the fees and penalties associated with cross-selling multiple accounts and banking products.
In order to generate these profits, low-wage frontline workers often find themselves engaging in sales tactics that range from the uncomfortable and unethical, to some that border on illegality. Bank employees walk a tightrope between offering professional, helpful customer service and cross-selling products that profit their employer.
Think Wells Fargo is the only bad apple out there? Wrong.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP) interviewed frontline employees across the banking industry to compile a report examining the impacts of cross-selling in the financial industry. The staff they interviewed reported high levels of stress, mental distress and physical ailments due to overwhelming pressure to meet sales goals.
For instance, one Bank of America worker who wound up with an ulcer and vomiting blood after a dozen years in the industry, recalled a conversation he had with a manager after the employee avoided a cross-selling opportunity. The customer was already overdrawn and had just lost her job, so there didn’t seem any point trying to squeeze the customer for more. “The manager said that they should have offered a credit card because ‘it’s not our responsibility for them to pay the bill, just to make the sale.'”
Based on NELP’s interviews such as these, researchers uncovered some troubling trends. They specifically identified the following five ways in which the wrong approach to sales can seriously damage a financial institution’s brand.
1. Sales Quotas Can Be Harsh and Unpredictable
Workers at many levels within retail financial institutions report that they struggle to meet their sales goals often without even knowing what those goals are.
One Bankruptcy Relationship Manager at U.S. Bank said in late 2015 that her employer was “getting ready to change the bonus structure AGAIN in January,” even though she did not know even at that late date what her current quota numbers were.
A Maryland SunTrust worker similarly said that their “sales goals are constantly shifting. If you don’t hit your goal, it goes up 5%.” And then you are essentially punished for producing. “If you do hit your goal, it goes up another 10-15% next time.”
An employee at U.S. Bank observed, “The goals for bonuses are never announced in advance, so it’s hard to know from month to month” what expectations are, while another elaborated that because goals were routinely not released until the 10th or 15th of the month, they were largely unattainable.
Another U.S. Bank employee talked about the impact nebulous, unknown sales schemes had on her personally. “It’s really hard to do a budget for my household when I don’t know what the bonus is even going to be until halfway through the next month. I wish they’d be more transparent.”
Managers, too, feel the pressure of these individual goals for tellers and personal bankers. One Wells Fargo manager said that he was responsible — in official bank theory — to supervise employees he oversaw to ensure each met their expected goals. But in unstated practice, “the expectation is that as a manager it all falls on your shoulders.”
One long-time Santander branch manager said that if an employee leaves before a full year on the job, the manager’s own incentive pay was affected.
2. Quotas Pit Workers Against One Another and Create a Hostile Work Environment
According to frontline workers in the banking industry, failure to meet one’s sales quotas doesn’t only come with financial repercussions in the form of lost incentive pay. They have to pay a heavy emotional toll as well. Subjects in NELP’s study frequently said they were publicly mocked and threatened in front of peers.
For instance, the cross-selling lawsuit filed against Wells Fargo alleges, “Managers constantly harass, berate, demean, and threaten employees to meet unreachable quotas.” A Wells Fargo employee cited in the complaint relates that if an employee failed to meet his or her quota, they were threatened or embarrassed during morning meetings. Another former teller at Wells Fargo said managers would “put everyone’s metrics up in the break room.”
One customer service representative compared Bank of America’s approach to scheduling with “Hunger Games,” in which the most convenient or desirable work shifts were allocated after workers submitted “bids” — how many “quota incentive points” they felt they could attain if they were granted the time slots. This pitted workers with child care needs against those with transportation challenges. “Here, our time rather than a bonus or promotion opportunity is the prize.”
A branch manager explained that he was expected to hover behind employees during each conversation with a customer, and to draw the employee away mid-transaction if necessary to remind him or her to offer another product or ask why they were not doing so. “This was so terrorizing, it was unbelievable,” confessed the bank worker that NELP interviewed.
Read More: Cross-Selling in the Digital Banking Era
3. Sales Pressures Hurt Workers and Their Families
Frontline employees laboring under these high-pressure incentive programs often bring their work — or more specifically, the symptoms of their work — home with them. Many reported suffering physical manifestations and ailments as a result of their stress. While struggling to make ends meet and care for their families on relatively low wages, managers frequently encourage them to pursue sales opportunities among family and friends in order to hit their goals. Such practices are euphemistically called “referral programs,” but they are far from a friendly, grass-roots word-of-mouth sales campaign.
Some service reps and tellers feel pressured to open accounts that their own family members don’t even need just to make their numbers and keep their job. One manager in Florida with experience at both Bank of America and Wells Fargo said that she opened an account for her daughter that they would soon close, and that one of her coworkers opened an account for each of his 11 grandchildren just to make his quota.
Another teller in Florida admitted that she enrolled her sister for a credit card that the sister did not really understand. “She maxed it out, and 10 years later… she still has that credit card maxed-out.”
One U.S. Bank employee said there was a constant battle between doing what you know is right for the customer and your own personal well-being. “Faced with not paying a light bill or having shoes for the kids going back to school, you can’t make that sacrifice.”
Upon being asked if he made a living wage, one former Bank of America personal banker replied, “Oh gosh no! Food for my son is really hard. He’s 12. I can’t put him in any extracurricular activities.”
One Rhode Island call-center worker was simply overwhelmed by the pressure. “I used to cry every day,” she admitted.
4. Sales Goals Pit Employees’ Self Interests Against Customers’ Interests
“It’s not a service position, it’s a sales position. And that means it’s not about the customer.”
— BofA Personal Banker
While many frontline banking employees say they enjoy helping people and working in a customer service role, they find that these functions too often have to take a back seat in order to meet their goals and earn incentive pay they need to survive.
For instance, one call-center worker said her manager told her to keep numbers on call lists even after customers asked for their removal. When she questioned whether that was a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, she was written up.
Another worker with experience at both SunTrust and Bank of America recalled, “Managers really pushed me to ignore it whenever consumers said no.”
Several workers noted that managers would look the other way when documentation verifying identity was missing, or when forms were turned in with signatures but other information was not filled in.
“I had never in my life been the sort of person to see dollar signs when people walk in,” admitted a personal banker. “I always liked building relationships. But these inane goals really affected how I saw them. I didn’t think about meeting their needs, I thought about how can I meet my goals.”
Another personal banker with Bank of America in Florida bemoaned the reality of high-pressure sales environments. “I’ve had days that even though I tried really hard, I couldn’t sell, and that’s very scary. It’s not a service position, it’s a sales position. And that means it’s not about the customer.”
A service specialist in Rhode Island, also with Bank of America, said that it’s company policy to push credit cards whenever any customer faced one of life’s major milestones. “If someone’s getting married, tell them to get a credit card,” she said. “Any life event that happened, you were supposed to say ‘get a credit card for it.’ If you heard kids in the background while you were on the phone, the answer was ‘a credit card.'”
5. Frontline Employees Can’t Blow the Whistle
Tellers and service reps frequently expressed discomfort with the tactics they felt they had to use to sell their institution’s products, and found little redress if they were to go to managers about their concerns. In fact, in most cases, workers say that their managers are already aware of the practices in their branches and generally encouraged them. As a Chase Bank sales and service associate noted, “the managers were the ones who told us to push the products.”
Even when mid-level managers find themselves troubled by the ethical, moral or legal issues their institution’s sales practices raise, they
A banker in Minnesota said he had at least two conversations with his manager about unrealistic sales goals and was told, “What do you want me to do, brother? My hands are tied. I just do what they tell me to do.”
Don’t Undermine Your Brand’s Most Powerful Tool: Your People
NELP says there is nothing inherently wrong with financial institutions setting goals, establishing benchmarks and encouraging all employees to help make the organization successful. But the way many quota systems are structured — particularly among the country’s bigger banks — bends those practices into a set of internal policies that tend to only benefit bank CEOs and shareholders, but are bad for nearly everyone else.
So long as individual workers, teams, branches, call centers, loan offices, and managers are all judged — and paid — based on their ability to meet onerous and ever-changing quotas, everyone suffers under this system.
Bottom line? The best brands are built with a relentless focus on doing what’s right… for all constituencies — employees, shareholders, management, the board and (of course) the consumer. Any time a company puts short term gains ahead of consumers, the brand will invariably suffer.