April 10, 2017
Wells Fargo’s Full Page Mea Culpa
Sometimes, when you’re the boss, you have to take the bullet, even if it’s not your fault. Such is the story of new Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan’s open letter on the pages of major newspapers, coast to coast. When a company makes a huge mistake, there are two big questions that immediately arise: “who will take responsibility?” and, “will consumers accept that?”
There’s probably little reason to dig into the details of the offense in question. Most people are aware of the scandal that rocked Wells Fargo last year, impacting millions of customers and costing thousands of employees – including upper-level management – their jobs. The question here is, how did Sloan and his PR team manage their connection narrative with customers, and will it be effective. Here, in part, is what their full-page newspaper advertisement said:
That’s always a good opening. Even better than “we’re sorry” in most cases. Especially in Sloan’s case, since he only took the helm six months ago. Thank you is rarely a bad way to start any conversation, and it’s especially poignant in this case. Sloan is offering gratitude to those customers who stuck with the company as they fixed what was broken and rolled the heads they deemed needed to be rolled.
Of course, there does need to be an apology, and it comes in paragraph two when Sloan admits his first act was to apologize to “our team, our customers and the public” for “our company’s” mistakes. The “our company” here is a nice touch. Collective pronouns are a good communication technique to create a team feeling when groups are separated and, especially when there is animus, as there certainly is here.
Next, Sloan admits the cleansing process is not completed. The ol’ “there’s still work to be done” is a bit cliché, but in this case, it’s a necessary one. Then, Sloan breaks down what has and is being done.
They’ve “taken steps to make things right” by refunding customers and settled a massive class action suit. They also “commit” to making things right for any customer adversely affected. Not a bad spot for an open-ended, somewhat vague promise.
What has to come next is how they’ve changed to Keep This From Happening Again … and that’s exactly where Sloan’s letter goes next. The letter promises to “put our customer’s needs first,” and that might be a bit of a stretch since they’re in business to make money for their shareholders, but it’s a good goal, and it should do well. Really, though, the most important line in this part of the letter is underneath that bold statement: “We eliminated product sales goals and changed how we pay retail bankers.” Arguably, that could have been the bold statement, because that’s essentially what created the problem in the first place, and it’s a bold move for the company.
There’s a lot more to it, but another key line is “…regaining your trust remains our top priority…” That’s an important statement because rebuilding that trust is vital … and it will be a long time coming.
Sloan’s mea culpa is well-crafted, and it hits on all the major points necessary when your team screws up this bad. The only question that remains now is the latter: “how will customers respond?”