A team of Wells Fargo business researchers known as ethnographers studied the culture of a San Diego apartment management company and helped lead the business to a new level.
Rick Snyder invited a team of Wells Fargo researchers to conduct an on-site study of his apartment management company.
Photo Credit: Paul Kizirian

Banking researchers offer fresh business insights

A team of Wells Fargo business researchers used ethnography to study the culture of a San Diego apartment management company and take the business to a new level.

October 5, 2017

When it came to his fast-growing apartment management company in San Diego, Rick Snyder believed in automating as much of his business as possible — making life easier for him and his team.

Things seemed to be running smoothly and business was good, so when he heard about a consulting service offered by his bank that could help improve his business, it piqued his interest. If anything, he thought the experience would be a good way to validate the previous investments the company made.

Last year, Snyder and his firm, R.A. Snyder Properties, Inc., welcomed a team from Wells Fargo who stationed themselves in positions throughout the company — front office, back office, and in the field — for a two-day, on-site study of its culture, operations, and processes.

When it was over, the researchers gave Snyder fresh insights about the inner workings of his company, and their recommendations helped him take the business to the next level in technology usage, efficiency, staffing organization, and customer service, he said.

“I really had no idea this kind of service existed,” Snyder said. “And I didn’t fully appreciate its value until we got into the study and I saw the results. It really makes a difference when you have a third party with an outside perspective who brings fresh eyes to a company’s processes, and sees clearly where things could be improved or built upon.”

An ‘investment in the customer’ approach

Wells Fargo launched the consulting service nearly 14 years ago, pioneering the practice among large banks, company officials said. Housed within the Treasury, Merchant & Payment Solutions group, the team uses ethnography — the in-person, detailed study of culture, customs, and practices — to examine a company and determine if changes could be implemented to improve performance.

From small businesses to large corporate institutions, the ethnography team’s client list runs the gamut, said Jamie Wells, head of the Wells Fargo Ethnography team. Offering the service at no charge on a case-by-case basis, the company has amassed nearly 450 studies since the team’s inception.

“The one thing that these examples have in common is an aha! moment from the client when they realize the team has told them something new, something they didn’t know before the engagement,” Wells said. “And in the vast majority of cases, the team’s recommendations have the potential to improve their customer’s experience and contribute to their bottom line.”

Most companies have not thought of turning to their bank for this kind of service to help them create new business opportunities, he said.

“But the clients we have worked with will tell you with certainty that it does work,” he said. “Ultimately, the payoff is having a more in-depth relationship with business customers and becoming an intrinsic collaborator in their success.”

By offering the service for free, Wells Fargo is departing from the traditional fee-for-service approach to business customers, said Stanley D. Smith, a banking consultant and professor emeritus of finance at the University of Central Florida.

“With the ethnographic consulting services, Wells Fargo appears to be taking an ‘investment in the customer’ approach,” he said. “In other words, instead of selling the customer the service, they are providing it to the customer because the bank believes in the customer’s future. To the extent the customer benefits, Wells Fargo should also benefit because the services would help the customer grow, expand, and turn to the bank for the resulting financing.”

‘The perfect marriage of efforts’

From the beginning, the ethnography team’s priority has been helping customers, not selling products or services, said Paul Kizirian, the team leader, co-founder, and a former consultant for Ernst & Young. When the team was formed, it was in response to industrywide surveys that indicated many businesses felt that big financial institutions were somewhat out of touch with their customers’ real needs, he said.

“Their message was, ‘Hey, all you banks and big institutions out there. You can read our financials and help us conduct our transactions, but you don’t know what it is like to walk in our shoes,’” Kizirian said. “Many were saying that a lot of so-called business solutions seem to make life more complicated for them, instead of making it easier.”

For Wells Fargo, he said, the key was to set up a team that could go inside the customer’s four walls, walk in their shoes, learn from observation, and find solutions that would indeed make life and business easier for them.

“It’s less of a top-down and more of a bottom-up approach,” said Kizirian, who led the study of R.A. Snyder Properties. “We go in and see what people do and how they do it. We hear from those who actually do the work at the ground level. That approach has successfully uncovered scores of opportunities for the business to grow and the bank to deepen its relationship with customers.”

For R.A. Snyder Properties, the experience has been transformational, said CEO Snyder, who acknowledged some nervousness when the study began. That nervousness disappeared, however, when the results were clear. Some of the most helpful improvements included:

  • Better customer service: The company expanded tenant use of mobile and online rent payment. That gave on-site managers more time to help tenants with other needs, rather than sitting in an office doing paperwork.
  • More back-office efficiency: The company implemented a comprehensive, automated system that speeds up its ability to process rent payments, debt payments, invoices, contracting services, and other financial transactions.
  • Improved risk management practices: A review of the company’s compliance with state and federal regulations led to suggestions for future improvements.

“We have grown, we are more technologically competent, and we are more efficient as a company,” he said. “Wells Fargo has been there with us through the whole process. That study has given an added dimension to our relationship with the bank. I’ve come to recognize that Wells Fargo is a partner, stakeholder, and integral component in the success of our business. It’s been the perfect marriage of efforts.”

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