Exceptional Service Leads to Better Business

From its early work with Wild West gunslingers to today’s Platinum cardholders, American Express has always been a customer service company in disguise.

December 8, 2014

“Relationship Care” is a protected phrase, trademark number 4,099,995. The license was issued to American Express on Valentine’s Day of 2012. Behind those two words is a process designed to convert American Express customers into loyal and avid promoters of the company. It’s a process that has enabled American Express to reinvent servicing worldwide and has provided the company with multiple awards and, more importantly, satisfied card members.

“We embrace every opportunity to connect with our customers,” Vikram Nangia, EVP of Customer Service Network Engineering, explained in a recent talk. “Customer service in most companies tends to be viewed as a cost. At American Express, we take a different approach. Every customer interaction is something to be valued.”

Founded in 1850, American Express has evolved over time from a freight forwarding company to a purveyor of travelers checks to a credit card company with expertise in big data and marketing. Nangia noted that, today, AmEx might accurately be described as a technology innovation company, tasked with managing over $900 billion in charges every year and thousands of transactions per second. 

But despite this evolution, “at the end of the day we think of ourselves as a service company,” Nangia said. “Our brand stands for service.”

The implications of this perspective on service are increasingly profound. While once thought of in terms of a specific industry, service in the modern marketplace is becoming “transcendent.” If customers can reach their favorite shoe brand through social media and get a response in minutes, then this quality of service becomes a universal benchmark “We get tens of millions of calls per year and people don’t want to hear music. They will not tolerate anything worse than the best experience that they’ve had,” Nangia said. “This is a challenging environment.”

Every customer interaction is something to be valued.

In 2010, AmEx thus started recalibrating their customer service approach. They canvassed their customers and received common-sense requests: treat me as a person, not a number. Deliver seamlessly. Be genuine. Make me feel valued.

“It’s very simple,” Nangia said. “We forget how simple it is.”

The company then embarked on a range of new initiatives to treat every one of its customers as an individual. They integrated customer service operations so that requests made through any pipeline—social media, telephone, mail, email—are calibrated across all platforms. They opened two-way video chats to humanize customer service experiences. They also listened closely to one of their customers’ more unexpected requests: empower your people. 

Until recently, a high percentage of the thousands of employees working as customer care professionals servicing customers quit AmEx every year. (These figures were no different from the rest of the servicing industry.) When these employees were surveyed, they indicated they wanted more recognition, rewards, and, most importantly, they wanted to feel enabled and empowered in their jobs. AmEx listened. The company removed call scripts and allowed their employees to guide their customer interactions (within regulatory guidelines) and introduced a new incentive and reward system. “We present the profile of who [a] customer is and other information relevant to that particular interaction. That allows the care professional to be conversant and pull out their personality and match it to the personal needs of the customer,” Jim Bush, an EVP at American Express, explained in a 2012 interview with Fortune.

Numerical returns have matched employees’ anecdotal success. Card-member attrition is many multiples lower while the cost of the customer care workforce has dropped every year, in part due to reduced turnover. Velocity of card usage is growing and general costs are declining. In short, good service has proven to be good business.

When asked what AmEx, in particular, does so effectively when it comes to service, Nangia unhesitatingly attributed the results to a deep sense of purpose within the company. “This distinguishes us,” he said. “I firmly believe we all bleed blue.”