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Sales experience, not banking experience, dominates banking culture

Customer handing check to bank teller | YinYang/Getty Images
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Many bank employees want to sell you something.

“The main qualifying skill was sales. At Wells Fargo, they are primarily looking for people with a strong sales background to become a personal banker,” says former Wells teller and personal banker Ashley Narcisse. “In fact, you don’t need banking experience to be hired into that role.”

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Bankrate interviewed 7 former and current bank employees — 4 who spoke on-the-record and 3 who spoke in detail but did not what their information published — reviewed Congressional testimony and lawsuits from several former bank employees, and searched online listings for banking jobs and found:

  • Managers evaluate bankers primarily on salesmanship, and secondarily on customer service. “I was told by Wells Fargo to make my personal bankers and tellers to sell, sell, sell, which often came at the cost of customer service and offering sound financial advice,” says Julie Miller, a former Wells Fargo branch manager in Macungie, Pennsylvania, in a briefing to the Congressional Progressive Caucus in June.
  • Branch banker job postings typically list sales experience as the top requirement, and they usually require no education beyond a high school diploma. Knowledge of banking isn’t emphasized.

    From a job listing:

    We find that in order to be successful in the role of Personal Banker you should have:

    • Minimum 2 years of sales and customer service experience (financial services, call center, retail, etc.)
    • Excellent communication, decision making, persuasion and problem resolution skills
    • Experience working in fast-paced, goal oriented and team based structured environment
    • Proficiency with Windows based applications (ability to navigate within multiple screens)
    • High School Diploma, GED or relevant experience required
    • A strong interest in continued learning and career advancement opportunities
  • Bankers risk being fired if they don’t meet ambitious goals to sign up customers for new accounts and services. “If I do not meet my sales goals I can get written up, and I risk being fired,” says Khalid Taha, a Wells Fargo personal banker, in the June briefing to the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “This kind of pressure means bank employees must prioritize selling products, rather than just focusing on what best matches our customers’ needs.”

Wells Fargo was fined $185 million last month for opening up to 2 million unauthorized bank accounts and credit cards since 2011 without customers’ consent. Regulators blamed the misdeeds on a lack of oversight and Wells Fargo’s unrealistic sales goals for its employees. Wells Fargo says it has fired 5,300 employees who were caught opening unauthorized accounts.

The intense pressure to sell extends beyond Wells Fargo to most, if not all, prominent banks, according to industry watchers.

Here are the stories of 4 former bank employees:

‘2 and 8’

Randy Holbrook knew next to nothing about banking when he went to work for Wells Fargo, but he knew how to sell. When he was hired in 2012, he was working for a Hertz rental car agency, where his sales challenge was persuading customers to buy auto insurance. Before that, he worked at an America Online call center, where he tried to stop customers from canceling service. During summers in college, he sold kitchen knives.

Holbrook understood that as a Wells Fargo banker, he was a salesman. If a teller alerted him that a customer had just deposited a large sum into a checking account, Holbrook would persuade the customer to open a savings account.

“Sometimes I really did help people,” he says. “You can see those opportunities and that’s how they normally preach to you how to sell them.”

Holbrook’s sales quota was “2 and 8:” He was supposed to open 2 checking accounts each day, and 8 “solutions” overall. A solution could be a checking or savings account, a debit or credit card, or signing a customer up for online banking. He says he and other bankers sometimes opened new customer accounts just to meet sales quotas. Sometimes he did it by stealth.

Holbrook says that early in his tenure at Wells Fargo, he would phone customers to pitch new accounts. He would ask if he could send the customer some paperwork.

“At the point when you say, ‘Yes, send me the paperwork,’ the account is opened,” Holbrook says. “We would do that all the time, not knowing the repercussions of it.”

At the point when you say, ‘Yes, send me the paperwork,’ the account is opened.

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman says, “Wells Fargo’s culture is committed to the best interests of our customers, providing them with only the products they want and value.” The bank ended all product sales goals as of Oct. 1, she says.

Holbrook quit in April 2016, and now he works for a credit union.

“It is much better,” he says. “They don’t have the sales stress, the goals. … You have to deprogram yourself from pushing people to open accounts.”

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‘As little info as possible’

Wells Fargo isn’t the only bank that forces employees to “cross sell” — to urge existing customers to open additional accounts, whether or not getting new accounts are necessary (or wise). TD Bank required Cassaundra Plummer to cross sell. Ultimately, she was fired because, she says, she didn’t cross sell vigorously enough. It bothered her conscience.

Photo courtesy of Cassaundra Plummer

Plummer was a college student when she took a job as a teller for a TD Bank store in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in January 2010. She soon discovered that her priorities differed from the company’s.

Plummer thought it was most important to balance her teller drawer at the end of her shift and to deliver good customer service. Instead, she says she was told, “Your job is to sell. If you don’t sell, we don’t need you.”

“I was very disillusioned, because they put on a façade of helping customers,” Plummer says. “But your job is not to help the customer, it’s just to sell. That’s your only job, that’s your only purpose. It was very frustrating to me because it’s hard for you to say these things and do these things that the bank expects of you when you are not doing right by the customer.”

Your job is not to help the customer, it’s just to sell. That’s your only job, that’s your only purpose.

When customers walked in or drove up, Plummer called up their account information on the computer. How many accounts did he or she have? Were any of them mortgages or other types of loans?

“Whatever they don’t have, you have to sell them something,” Plummer says.

If the customer’s only account was checking, “I have to try to get you to open a savings account or get a credit card.”

She was a teller until 2014, when she trained to be a customer service representative — a banker working behind a desk.

Every morning, employees would huddle to outline the day’s sales goals. She says: “They would start telling people, ‘You should tell customers to get a home equity loan if they say they’re going on vacation. Or if you see a student, or someone getting ready to go to college, offer them a credit card.’ We knew these weren’t often appropriate products.”

She says she was trained to open new accounts and services without explaining that they were optional.

TD offers a service that Plummer thought was inappropriate for many customers — debit card advance, which allows account holders to overdraw their checking accounts instead of having transactions declined. The service carries a $35 fee every time it is used. She says she was trained to tell customers that she was signing them up for debit card advance, instead of asking them if they wanted the service.

Sometimes she ignored her training.

“I explained things the way they are so the customer knows what they’re getting into before they sign the paperwork,” Plummer says. “And that goes against bank culture. They warned us to give customers as little information as possible.”

She says she was given one-on-one coaching sessions and role-playing exercises, but she resisted pushing inappropriate accounts on customers. She was fired in September 2015, even though, she says, she had an excellent customer-service rating in her final year.

A TD Bank spokeswoman says, “We respectfully disagree with Ms. Plummer’s description of TD Bank’s culture. Our primary focus is to help our customers achieve their goals. TD Bank is well known for its focus on delivering unique customer experiences, and we take our commitment to customers and ethics and integrity seriously. Any behavior that undermines customer trust is inconsistent with that mission.”

Plummer now works as a bookkeeper for a trucking company. She dropped out of Bowie State University while she worked for TD Bank. Now she’s considering going back to college — and changing her major from finance to accounting.

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‘They need more skills’

Photo courtesy of Ashley Narcisse

Narcisse, who spent the better part of a decade in banking, has moved on.

She started out in 2006 with World Savings Bank in Southern California. World Savings was bought by Wachovia, which later was acquired by Wells Fargo. Along the way, Narcisse worked as a teller and a personal banker. She says she quit in July 2013 because she was unhappy with the sales pressure.

“Anytime a customer needed something, i.e., address change, account research, etc., bankers are expected to cross sell other products during that interaction,” she writes in an email. “As bankers, we were trained to offer solutions during conversations with customers, but because of the high-pressure sales environment, bankers sounded like car salesmen.”

Because of the high-pressure sales environment, bankers sounded like car salesmen.

Now Narcisse and her family have moved to a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, where she is a financial coach. She advises millennial clients with her company, Budget Brain Consulting. She is pursuing an Accredited Financial Counselor certification. AFC-certified counselors don’t sell financial products.

“I coach people on how to manage money the right way and teach them the skills needed to succeed financially,” Narcisse says. “I basically took my experience with bank customers and found real solutions for them. People don’t need more bank products, they need more skills on how to manage what they already have.”

‘This is not helping people’

Not every banker chafes at sales pressure or balks at the lack of emphasis on customer service. Michael A. Grego got out of banking because he had to spend too much time dealing with customers’ problems.

Before he worked as a personal banker for Associated Bank, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Grego managed a rent-to-own appliance and furniture store. It was a high-stress, low-pay job. “I was looking to try something different in the sales field,” he says. After interviewing for the job at Associated Bank, he figured he had found what he was looking for: “It was supposed to be primarily a sales-based position.”

Grego liked schmoozing with customers to find out what types of accounts he could sell them. But customer-service issues interfered with sales. Clients complained about high fees. “We gotta be selling, selling, selling — but at the same time, we’re not getting anyone into the door because they’re upset at us,” Grego says. “I got to the point where I thought, ‘This is not helping people, and this is not the sales job that I was promised.'”

I got to the point where I thought, ‘This is not helping people.’

An Associated Bank spokeswoman says, “Associated Bank insists on the highest levels of integrity in everything we do, every time. From the products we offer, to the way we train and incentivize our employees, to how we work as a team — we have one goal: to provide our customers with a superior banking experience that meets their needs and exceeds their expectations.”

Grego quit in October 2009, after 10 months on the job. He went into sales and marketing for an arena football team, and later for an assisted living facility, where he works now.

Grego thinks of sales as creating business, and customer service as saving business. At the assisted living facility, he creates business.

“I don’t have to save any business these days, so that’s good.”

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