Wells Fargo has been all over the news recently with a scandal that is quite shocking. In case you missed it, here’s what happened: Amid excessive cross-selling pressure from management, thousands of Wells Fargo employees around the country secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts without customers’ knowledge or consent. These accounts generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent fees and caused many Wells Fargo customers hassles to undo the unauthorized accounts. The result was that Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees who opened the fraudulent accounts and paid $185 million in fines. Still, some are questioning why managers who exerted the sales pressure on those frontline sales associates haven’t been fired and whether the fines were enough. Others are asking why CEO John Stumpf is still in his position.
This got me thinking about how much this scandal will hurt the brand and the company as a whole. Personally, it reinforced my frustration with a lot of big banks since the crash of 2008. I have a Wells Fargo account, so does this scandal make me want to transfer my account? Not necessarily. Yes, my opinion of Wells Fargo is skewing negatively right now, but big banks as a group haven’t had a good reputation with much of the country since the economic collapse. And my personal perception of big banks is that they all engage in questionable behavior to achieve the biggest return on equity and the highest stock valuation. So transferring my account to another big bank would essentially make no real difference. It would, however, be a significant inconvenience for me.
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Maybe I could move my account to a small bank? But since there are limited locations and ATMs for those smaller banks, I would likely have to pay more fees to withdraw money. Again, more inconvenient for me. And herein lies the struggle: Does my desire to do business with a company that has built a positive reputation and brand loyalty outweigh my need for convenience?
Sometimes it’s not even about convenience; it’s about economic necessity. A perfect example is Walmart. Walmart has traditionally had a negative public image. They are seen as not treating their employees very well, paying low salaries, limiting hours to avoid paying health care, etc. All the while their executives are making millions. But still, many people shop there – even those Walmart employees who are perceived as not being treated well! Why is that? Simple: economics. Walmart touts the lowest prices, and for the most part they provide them. So many frugal consumers who otherwise don’t agree with Walmart’s corporate practices still shop there to get the lowest prices on groceries and other necessary items. In this case, economic need wins over brand reputation.
So when does a scandal actually hurt a company? When its target audience has the ability to change to a competitor. This means that consumers can make this change without negatively impacting their wallets or perceptions of convenience. Chipotle recently had a food poisoning scandal that had a tremendous effect on their sales. They have been working extra hard to bring customers back, even offering promotions for free children’s meals. This is good because, with an abundance of other casual dining restaurants, they can’t afford to lose brand loyalty. In my neighborhood there are many options for this type of restaurant, all around the same price. So the hardship to switch to another restaurant is nonexistent. Chipotle has an uphill battle and they recognize that consumers have many viable alternatives. There is a real danger of losing market share and they are taking steps to regain customer loyalty.
So this still leaves me frustrated with Wells Fargo. On principle, I want to move my account, but I don’t want to deal with the inconvenience. I certainly don’t want to move my account to a bank that I perceive as equally untrustworthy, and banks that operate entirely online are not yet an effective offering for me. What would your solution be?