Wells Fargo’s Rod Sayegh: "Being Empathetic has Ripple Effects"

When we begin our interview, Rod Sayegh, SVP of Wealth Digital, Desktop, and Innovation at Wells Fargo, immediately starts talking about Spotify.

To him, the music streaming platform exemplifies what it means to be a transparent company. One that, even with its flaws, provides a holistic customer experience — and an honest one at that.

That’s what this Luminaries interview was all about: How a brand’s voice shouldn’t feign perfection, but rather, honestly acknowledge how it feels to be a customer on each step of the journey.

Here’s what Rod had to say about speaking your customers’ language, the best way to convince stakeholders to adopt a fail fast mentality, and why saying "D&I [diversity & inclusion] is good for business" is actually a bad thing. 

JARED JOHNSON: The way that brands talk to their audience has changed a lot even in the past couple years. How have you seen brands’ voices evolve in the digital age? Who is doing it well and who isn’t?

ROD SAYEGH: I'm late to the Spotify game and I don't pay for premium service. Spotify has really annoying ads to get you to pay for premium. They even go as far as to make fun of themselves in those ads, saying things like, "Isn't it annoying when an ad comes on when you're trying to listen to music?" I went into the Spotify app, and I thought, "I'll do that trial of premium." What I found was this.

Screen Shot 2019-01-30 at 4.30.28 PMI talk about empathy a lot. I think about how most apps would either not give you the option to upgrade to premium or take you through a series of steps to upgrade. But Spotify did something different — they came right out and said, "You can't upgrade to premium in the app. We know, it's not ideal." This signals Spotify really understands the client journey. I can image there were smart people around the table evaluating customer service issues, saying something like, "We're getting a lot of service tickets complaining that they can't upgrade to premium in the app. Why don't we just be real with everyone and admit that it's a shortcoming?" It's very rare that you see a company saying, "You can't do X." The typical mantra is, "Always focus on positives and not the negatives." As a result, it's also very rare that a company admits that they know it's a shortcoming, right?

JJ: Right.

RS: Being empathetic in this way has rippling effects — it makes me more of a loyal Spotify user or want to be one because they are thinking about me and thinking about what I'm doing in my journey. Today, people demand every brand be honest and transparent — in other words, real. This is a small example, but speaks volumes about the culture at Spotify and what I'd like to see other companies model.

Today, people demand every brand be honest and transparent — in other words, real.

When I think of financial services companies’ brand voice and image, they don't often think about, "How does the brand voice or image empathize with the digital journey? How does the voice come across when we don't have something? Do we wear our emotions on our sleeve?" I think we can learn from Spotify and say, "How can we make that brand voice also work when we're trying to be really honest and clear with people around what we have, what we don't have, what we're working on, and what we're aware of?"

JJ: When you showed me the Spotify screenshot my first reaction was, "I can't believe that they don't have a way to do that on mobile."

RS: Exactly. It’s so crazy.

JJ: I wonder if that's a technical limitation, or if that's a purposeful choice. But I get what you're saying: digital experiences usually don’t admit it if they’re not giving you an ideal experience. Usually it would tell the user something like, "Here's how you can do it. Navigate to our desktop website and then take these steps." I do like the candid honesty of Spotify saying, "This sucks that you can't do it on mobile. We know."

RS: You're totally right there. You would expect them to say, "Go to the website," versus saying, "Yeah, we know this is not what you would expect." If I was told to go to the website, in my mind it's basically, "Why are you making me go to the website? Why are you not just building it in the app? Why didn't anyone think about building the app?" It's music. People listen to it when they're out and about. They're not always listening to it from their laptop computer. Now I'm more apt to go to the desktop knowing that they're aware of their issues. I talk to clients a lot, and they say, "Well, why don't you have this?" Or, "Why does it have to be this way?" It is more often than not something we are aware of, however the brand's voice and image doesn't really provide the voice for us to say in a digital experience that it's not ideal. That kind of speaking has to come from verbal interactions. 

If we bring it back to empathy, it is not what someone wants during their digital journey. They want to hear flat out, "Hey, this is being worked on. You should expect it within the next couple months." That's empathy.


JJ: We've seen a lot of D&I initiatives for large enterprises start to trend. Are you seeing any positive impact to businesses' bottom lines? Are there any proof points that you've seen that impact Wells Fargo?

RS: Time and time again I hear companies saying, "D&I is good for business." I find that to border on rude — we have to find a better way to communicate our intent behind those words. It's almost off-putting to say that the reason companies should be diverse is because it's good business (referring to the bottom line). It's the wrong spin. I would argue that shouldn't be the reason why companies focus on it. Rather, focus on the need to serve your growing number of diverse clients and your ability to bring to the table what a client expects.

In our communities, we have a vast array of client needs and demographics that continue to change. When it comes to how families come together, how they're formed, and what they need, no two are the exactly the same. Especially in relationship-led segments, it’s about a truly “know me” experience. Clients grow their relationship with their advisors because they feel that the team knows them very well, can empathize with them, and simply just “get them" on all aspects. They're the ones that remember their grandkids' names, what irks them, and what delights. They're the ones that remember that Mrs. Smith likes chocolate and Mr. Smith likes brandy. It's that personal connection.

When you're bringing diverse people to the table, sometimes those connections are automatically there, without having to force them. There's a reason why I see an LGBT doctor — there's a level of conversation that we don't need to have and there's a certain language we speak, as well as a sense of openness. I automatically feel more comfortable discussing certain things than I would otherwise. That happens in all kinds of professions, but it also happens in the financial world. I'm more apt to go see someone who is an LGBT [financial] advisor for the same reason. When you have a diverse set of clients there are certain things that you can bring to the table when you speak their “language.” That is why we should be doing it, to get to that deeper connection, create that comfort.

When you have a diverse set of clients there are certain things that you can bring to the table when you speak their “language.” That is why we should be doing it, to get to that deeper connection, create that comfort.

JJ: How do you see enterprises transition from having just one-off D&I efforts to completely integrating it into their DNA?

RS: As cliche as it may be, people need to see results, not just talk about them. I see many companies talk about it, but the results don’t match and it really needs to happen at the operating committee, C-Suite, and executive levels. But it's never going to be a part of the DNA until people see changes with their own eyes.

I’m seeing that change happening all throughout Wells Fargo. For example, today there was an announcement of a new head of operations who is a complex, diverse candidate — I am seeing that happen more and more. If I turn back the clock seven to 10 years, the chatter was intense and getting mindshare was key, but maybe it was the pace of action that was lacking for me. Now, I'm seeing more action and results — and not just in our organization. What we need to start talking about is being honest and brave. Challenging others within an organization is usually not part of the culture when diversity and inclusion is in play, but if we're brave and have those conversations in a constructive way with a shared understanding, they become part of the norm and it becomes okay to challenge, and it becomes okay to be brave.

Applying this to the interview process, the hiring company and the interviewee need to take note on who’s in the room. If you’re the interviewee and on a panel and you haven't seen any diversity, talk to the recruiter or hiring manager about it. If you’re on the other side, be brave and ask if the panel is representing the company. When you're putting out your public face to a new candidate, you better get a diverse panel there, because you're also getting a diverse set of opinions around the qualifications of that candidate.

JJ: If that’s going to be the case, at least acknowledge the elephant in the room, "Hey, we know we're a bunch of white guys interviewing you, but we acknowledge that and we're working towards being more diverse," rather than it going unsaid, which is worse.

RS: Right, again a call back to empathy and being honest and transparent. Diversity and inclusion is not a weapon against the white male — it would be no different if the panel was all Asian American women. While there are other diversity dimensions to each and every one of us, we rarely get to those aspects in the interview process. I prefer to be part of an already diverse team rather than the token diverse person. 

I prefer to be part of an already diverse team rather than the token diverse person.


JJ: To truly be innovative, you have to be brave and have courage. Part of that is being okay with failing. Innovation requires testing hypotheses to see what really works, which means that some experiments will undoubtedly fail. However, in financial services, which is traditionally a risk-averse industry, there is often a lot of push back on the concept of failing fast. That's human nature. Nobody wants to fail. But how have you seen, in general, financial services companies start to change the culture to orient more around experimentation?

RS: To be frank, I haven't seen anyone do this really well. I think this happens more so in the tech and startup space mainly because of less regulation. When you work for a startup, risk tolerance is already embedded in the culture. No one goes to a startup and says, "We're a complete risk-averse startup. We're going to do things like the older companies." I think traditional FIs need to change how they fund and leave capital aside for R&D where they know it won't go anywhere. That means having the people up at the top being okay with ideas that sometimes just collect dust and realize that's an investment in people, fostering ideas, and eventually getting to a path that leads somewhere. But it costs, right? But startups do this all the time with less capital than incumbents. 

I think the funny thing is that people assume that every other project that they funded was as successful as they thought it was going to be, right? I think that's where we're completely wrong. A lot of projects that sound great on paper, the business case is sound, the financials work, it gets funded, it goes to development, but it still gets lost. I think you have to remind people of that. Like, "Hey, all the stuff that you have right now, not all of it's great. Some of it kind of sucks." I don't think we talk about that. 

I believe that a company must recruit clients or customers who want to test and provide feedback. I'm not seeing a lot of the FIs do this. You would be surprised the number of clients I talk to who want a lab-type of setting. This need occurs throughout all consumer segments, from mass market to ultra high net worth. There's this hunger to be part of something to help your company bring tools and features and functions to help them, whatever that happens to be. Clients are willing to give their time and energy into helping. But I don't see that really happening enough.

I think if you build a client feedback lab and you pair that with a fail fast mentality, you not only create a thing that a lot of people can use, but you create a culture of trying to figure things out. I think that's an easier idea to sell — you're getting stuff in front of clients and you're getting their real feedback, which to me is just part of the project process. If you make that part of the project process then you'll know which ones should go forward and which ones shouldn't. The mentality should be, "Put the stuff out there. Get your clients' feedback in the lab environment." 

I think if you build a client feedback lab and you pair that with a fail fast mentality, then I think you not only create a thing that a lot of people can use, but then you create a culture of trying to figure things out.

JJ: I think that makes sense. I liked the context you gave. "Hey, if you don't want to be testing a lot of ideas, you're going to be going down the same path you are now. You'll be building a huge business case for something, with all these assumptions and predictions, and you won't find out until you've built the whole thing that, 'Oh, it didn't work the way we thought it would.' As opposed to breaking all those assumptions down into, 'Well, let's test that with customers. Let's see if this holds true in the real world.'"

RS: Right. What better business case than if you can go to the finance people and say, "Yeah, we put this in front of clients, and here's exactly what they said. Oh, and by the way, here's the two-way mirror. Here are videos you can watch." You [can invalidate ideas] sooner because a client may have said, "It's not for me." Or maybe you realize, that it's not for this segment of clients, but it's great for this other segment of clients. Your original grandiose idea to give it to everyone didn’t work out, but maybe now you switch your intended audience to something smaller. Every idea has merit. Even those ideas on the shelf have merit, but did you get it in front of the right audience? 

Every idea has merit. Even those ideas on the shelf have merit, but did you get it in front of the right audience?


JJ: Let's look five years in the future. What do you think is going to be different about being a Wells Fargo customer? 

RS: Wells Fargo will continue its focus on the intersection of humans and technology, or as we say, "human ingenuity," especially within the wealth management space. You will see a greater influence on digital collaboration to accomplish and work on what the client needs most. Clients will see more tech, greater visibility to their data, more analytics, more research, and the ability to transact the way they want to.

Today, we meet with clients. We do annual or quarterly reviews. Oftentimes, that's done through paper. What I see in the future is the client being able to interact with plans and models. Maybe not in five years, however I believe it’s going to start to change the conversation around how conference rooms look. That conference room that you're sitting in, does it lend itself to collaborating through digital means? Everyone's too far apart from each other. It's not rounded edges for people to easily go across. There's no plug. I really think it's going to start to change how we look at the design of furniture, offices, and conference room spaces. We're looking at how we take a really large iPad and sit with the client and letting them navigate. 

If everyone was sitting at that, they'd be turning their bodies to look up at a screen, and no one's really looking at each other. You're all looking at the presenter or looking at the screen versus looking at each other, getting those facial cues of, "Yes, I understand," or, "No, I don't understand," or, "I didn't like something you said," or, "I liked something that you said." It's actually making it more collaborative and more human, in that sense. I think you'll start to see a lot more digital features and functions for the client. But I think you're going to see it more so in those personal, collaborate spaces where we triangulate over a device — and I don't mean a laptop.


JJ: Let's talk a little bit about the halo effect in financial services. Are you seeing value in digital experiences that are specifically launched to influence brand perception, intended to be used by customers? Or do you think that the metrics for customer-faced initiatives should always anchor on usage?

RS: I don't think customer-facing experience metrics should anchor on usage, especially in the high net worth space, where you have a high-touch relationship model. If you're trying to give your clients options, then usage is not that important. What's important is, was it easy? Did it save time on both the client and the advisor's side? Did it distill that complex information, and did it empathize with the journey? If you hit those things out of the park, that's what that customer is going to talk about at their next dinner party. That's what's going to make them advocate for you, not, "I used this thing and usage is high." Internally, that's how we speak. But how we should be speaking is the way our clients speak. We made it really easy. We made it very transparent. We distilled down. We empathize with the journey. Now the client is talking about how great this experience was with us. 

I don't think customer-facing experience metrics should anchor on usage, especially in the high net worth space, where you have a high-touch relationship model.


JJ: It's easy to fall back on what’s easy to measure rather than the things that are most impactful. I love the question you’re asking: “What is going to create a moment of delight that I'm going to want to share with other people?” And it's not me picking up an app every day. Maybe you formed a habit and you've got my eyeballs on it, but you are creating a moment that makes the user want to say, "I need to tell somebody about this."

RS: Let's go back to when Uber was new. If they just focused on quantitative measures, that would have been wrong. But if they focused on, "Let's make sure Jared can get from point A to point B and make it very seamless," that's what causes you to have a great experience, and then that's what causes you to go tell someone else when you arrive, "Oh, my God. I just used Uber. It’s so easy — I can see the car coming." That's what you want customers to say. If Uber only looked at numbers and the numbers showed that Jared only used it once, it would not appear successful. Well, maybe Jared only had to use it once and he influenced other people to sign up because of his memorable experience.

That's your marketing. Dare I say, marketing should add some dollars to any project to make your customers become salespeople on behalf of your company.

Follow Rod on LinkedIn.