Relationship-Driven Customer Service At American Express

Jim Bush, EVP of world service at American Express, delivered a morning keynote here at PegaWORLD to talk about customer service, and how they’re transforming it to provide better value to their customers. 93% of those surveyed say that companies fail to exceed service expectations, which is a complete disconnect with the fact that companies that provide superior service will get 13% more customer dollars because of that. They looked at a new customer service paradigm to deal with the business realities: multiple integrated service touchpoints; experiences benchmarked across industries; consumer choice; increased regulatory scrutiny; and better-informed, more powerful consumers through social media and other means. The customers are back in the driver’s seat in most consumer-facing businesses.

AmEx responded to this by deciding to service customers, not transactions. That’s an important distinction: a specific incident (whether positive or negative) needs the context of the entire customer relationship in order to understand how to best address it. They now consider service to be not a business cost, but an investment in business growth, and focus on respecting and deepening the customer relationship. To do this, they reconstituted their service organization as World Service, with the goal to enable, engage and empower. No small feat, considering that their 20,000 customer care professionals handle hundreds of millions of customer interactions in 22 markets, 15 languages and eight engagement channels.

They have moved past the granular measurement of “how did we do on this transaction” to the net promoter measurement of “would you recommend us to a friend”, which changed how they think about the customer relationship. In fact, they have just trademarked the term “relationship care”.

I’m in the middle of reading United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media – a fantastic and funny read about one man’s journey through a customer service nightmare (and if you haven’t seen the “United Breaks Guitars” video, get on over to YouTube right now) – and one of the points that author Dave Carroll makes in the book is that managing customer service on a transaction basis tends to make companies ignore what they think are statistically insignificant events such as a specific bad transaction with a customer. That, in short, is exactly how not to treat a customer if you want to foster a relationship.

Thinking about the customer relationship rather than just servicing a specific transaction puts AmEx on the right track towards service innovation. They’re also looking at engaging customers through the channel of their choice, from paper to telephone to SMS. If a 162-year-old company can do this, every company has the potential to do the same, and yet many continue to put their head in the sand on turning their customer service around to actually serve the customer in the manner that the customer wants to be served. To serve the global citizen, AmEx combines relationship care with channel convergence, integrated technology, and a global scale with borderless solutions. Through that, they want to turn indifferent (although satisfied) customers into promoters and advocates for the brand. Not many of those customers will end up with the AmEx logo tattooed on their arm, but a single voice can go a long ways these days.

Oh yeah, and they use some Pega software.

2 thoughts on “Relationship-Driven Customer Service At American Express

  1. Seems to me there is a contradiction going on at AMEX. On one hand they are trying to improve customer service yet their main criteria for new agents is call handling time. Agents are constantly under pressure to keep their CHT down or possibly lose their job. This is what causes agents to hand customers off or drop calls just to keep their CHT within limits. Not good for the customer. Also any survey that comes in with a low “would you recommend us to a friend”score reflects poorly on the agent and can also be cause for termination. Even if the customer is completely satisfied with the help they received and praise the agent for doing all that they could the agent still takes the hit. Maybe the customer is dissatisfied with an AMEX policy. Maybe that’s why they won’t refer a friend. Maybe these surveys should be reviewed and read before being used against the agent
    American Express is going to lose some of their best customer service agents if they don’t address this problem.

  2. Hi Donald, thanks for your comment. If it’s true that minimizing call handling time is a key metric for agents, then that is contradictory with their words about focusing on service.

    Keep in mind that what I wrote about was what an Amex EVP said during a conference presentation, not from my own observations about the company and their service levels. Often, executive-level initiatives that include trademarking smart new buzz phrases take a while to actually come to fruition in the trenches.

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